Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Leading Leaders: Lead and Let Lead

Published Date : Feb 26, 2018

Porntip Kanjananiyot
Chotima Chaitiamwong
Thailand-United States Educational Foundation
(TUSEF/Fulbright Thailand)



At this time when global environment facilitates one world’s economy, blurring national boundaries and promoting diversity through mobility of people, business, and information, higher education faces series of challenges forced by the development in labor market and increasing multicultural society.

As players in the growing competitive education industry, they need to distinguish themselves among many other education providers. It is a crucial task for education leaders to become more adaptive and competent in order to comfortably welcome the world of multicultural citizens and expatriates. They could then be able to push further their educational provision to be more realistic and practical to the fast movements of people and businesses.

In order for Thai leaders to benefit from the multicultural environments, they must firstly unlock their mindsets from several cultural practices, and turn them into positive means to learn the essence drawn from cultural diversity. This paper argues that to become a leading leader in the Thai context, ones could benefit from their cultural habits by gaining confidence sharpening leadership skills in a ‘leader-friendly’ environment, while strengthening teamwork and the overall institutions. Offering widened opportunities for subordinates to express diverse ideas and suggestions could not only enhance creativity and innovation, but also mean earned respect leaders would get. Their understanding of how improved Thai-style leadership in a ‘comfort zone’ could potentially make a sharp difference in their respective academic communities.

In addition, Thai leading leaders need other platforms to practice being quality leaders and followers. They should build networks with their regional/ international counterparts and institutions in order to ‘let others lead’ and learn to ‘lead’. Once they become comfortable amid cultural diversity and diversity in foreign settings, they may find another ‘comfort zone’ added to their original one. Learning experiences from the new ‘comfort zone’, when balanced with cross-cultural ingredients, could make Thai leaders contribute more meaningfully in any context.

By closely linking Thai cultural habits with leadership, it is hoped that this paper could be a case study for leaders from other countries and cultures to look into their own traditional patterns and draw some useful practices.


Globalization and Changing Environment

Globalization has more or less ‘patterned’ the world with economic development at its core. From a big picture, different parts of the world are woven together visibly and invisibly through free trade and technology.

Internationally, the World Trade Organization (WTO) encourages free trade among its member countries, thus opening up their markets and facilitating cross-border business transactions. In 2005, there were some 63,000 transnational organizations around the world with 147,000 networks in their host and home countries while their business stood at one third of the world products.(Office of the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education 2007: 23) Regionally, the blueprint to establish the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 was signed, signaling more cross-border interactions in the years to come. The transnational businesses and free trade, naturally lead to even greater mobility of people, information, and capital.

Furthermore, outsourcing/ offshoring has increasingly become one of the popular business models as many organizations now prefer to outsource/ offshore some of their supporting tasks so that their staffs could better concentrate on the core missions and fully focus on maximizing their creativity for innovation. Such directions have enabled them to heighten their speed to better meet the market demands as well.

In parallel, business, commerce, procurement, and communications have turned to be ‘e-oriented’. (ibid: 29) Technological advancement makes it faster, easier, and, sometimes, cheaper to contact one another ‘through the air’. Web-based, wireless, and mobile technologies provide great support to networked economy, influencing modern businesses to heavily rely on technological advancement to ensure success and sustainability.

The blurring borders resulted from economic development lead to two major phenomena. First, the world is stirred into a multicultural society in which local and foreign cultures meet and mix into an ‘international’ culture. Diversity of cultures apparently permeates into nations, organizations, and individuals as part of everyone’s life. Second, as the nations open their doors for free trade and investment, new players and new forms of businesses result in an intense competition at all sectors. Nations, organizations, and individuals alike are to mark themselves out from the crowd in a unique and favorable way.

Do Thai higher education institutions fit in with this scenario?


Challenges of Thai Higher Education

Thai higher education itself has been changing from both external and internal forces. Externally, it has been influenced by the free trade particularly WTO agreement on liberalization of trade in services including education by 2020, when education will be borderless. In addition, Thai students have seen more learning opportunities through cross-border delivery (e.g. distance learning), commercial presence (e.g. offshore branches of foreign institutes), and even presences of natural persons (e.g. education services provided by foreigners). (Commission on Higher Education Ministry of Education 2007)

On the quality end, the global economy and pressure have called for quality ‘global workers’ whose professional knowledge means depth of the specific field and breadth of other related areas, plus English proficiency and IT. Going along with them are essential ‘global skills’ on cross-cultural management, communication, networking, socialization, life-long learning, problem solving, risk management, socialization, teamwork, and etc. (ibid: ค-ง). Such scene forces higher education institutions to compete locally and internationally.

As regards the internal forces, Thailand’s economic development in the past 20 years has given rise to the middle class and their purchasing power. The National Education Act of 1999 has stipulated that the government provide 12-year education free of charge. (Office of the National Education Commission 2008) These two key factors drove many to consider bachelor’s degree a benchmark for success in the modern world. They ‘buy’ education and have dramatically increased the demand for higher education. To handle this incident, higher education institutions offer more seats and various programs for rising numbers of high school leavers. They compete with each other through marketing means and offer some special deals such as English programs, student loans, and shortened duration of study. It could be said that university education has turned into ‘a fashion’ as well as ‘a must’ with some 1.8 million enrollments nowadays. (Samkoset 2007)

Moreover, the job market has gradually seen new demands as it promotes temporary employment and freelancing, thus making it more common for frequent changes of jobs and the risk of uncertain income. New types of jobs have emerged as industry and business sectors employ more outsourcing/ offshoring approaches.

With both external and internal forces, the whole country and the education community confront with complicated issues from the classic issue of equity to quality and internationalization. ‘Opportunity gap’ between the haves and the have-nots is also widened. Yet, higher education in Thailand requires a new landscape to ensure that learning outcomes and quality of learners will contribute to sustainability of development and to competitiveness. High caliber educators with proper leadership skills are therefore very much in need.


Education Leaders: Awareness of ‘Hearing and Visually Impaired’

Amid constant changes and challenges, education leaders are the very group of people to push their respective institutions forward, considering the authority they have and exposure to national and international development and trends.

Are they fully ready to take up this complicated responsibility?

An analysis on characteristics of leaders however pointed to some common leadership deficiencies which are described here as ‘leadership diseases’.
(Kanjananiyot 2007: 2)

Firstly, leaders, more than others in general, tend to have ‘hearing loss’ on some particular matters. This ‘I hear what I want to hear’ syndrome limits leaders to learn only to enjoy pleasant words and ‘empty’ compliments, leaving them in a closed box unknown to changes, problems, threats, and even new opportunities.

Secondly, the hearing loss is normally developed to ‘chronic hearing impaired’. This happens to leaders who have been bombarded with such excessive praises that they develop high regards on themselves. The ‘I know the best’ syndrome shields them from comments, suggestions, innovation, and good wills.

Love of authority and power could also cause leaders to be blind, either temporarily or permanently. If filled with overconfidence and pride, people in leading positions could stand far too firm on their ideas without offering opportunities for others to point out what needs to be seen.


Leaders in the Thai Context

In Thailand, the degree of hearing and visual impairment could be higher when coupled with some cultural habits. Despite the fact that leadership training in Thailand has been given importance, the courses offered do not seem to touch much about our own Thai cultural context. Therefore, leaders are inclined to follow their precursors and normal practices. In other words, they just consciously or unconsciously copy what they see and what they are used to. Neither change nor improvement could easily be made under their administration.

In fact, leadership deficiencies in Thailand have their roots in our own cultural habits, particularly when relating to ‘age’ and ‘authority’, which have been distorted and misinterpreted in workplaces.

Traditionally, the Thai society was built on hierarchical but reciprocal relationships among its members. In organizations, however, this base has been developed into a ‘seniority system’ in which ‘age’ could often be related to knowledge, experience, and, most of all, authority. The seniors or the leaders in organizations are supposed to ‘know it all’. (ibid: 4; Kanjananiyot 2007) As a result, quite a number of leaders feel obligated to forever take a lead as seemingly expected by the society.

Strong seniority system in any organization could make it slower for the ‘seniors’ to improve their performances while the ‘juniors’ tend to keep their mouths shut presuming that they are not in the position to voice their views. It is indeed an unfortunate situation since the organizations could simply lose new ideas and innovations while missing opportunities to cultivate learning culture for the overall development of their respective organizations.

Could such cultural practices be turned into positive mechanisms for productive ends?

What else could Thai leaders benefit in existing higher education environments?


Learning from Cultural Diversity in Higher Education Environments

Higher education institutions which operate in the increasing multicultural contexts are also becoming culturally diverse. They are places where people from different backgrounds meet and learn from one another. Students particularly those from international schools and from abroad together with foreign staffs or those graduated from other countries contribute to the rich diversity of their institutions.

However, many people consider the increasing cultural diversity in their society and institutions a threat of globalization on local cultures. In fact, the threat comes from within as they do not know or might not be aware that cultural diversity exists in their very own culture. Thus, as ‘global citizens’, it is essential that we all develop cross-cultural awareness and live harmoniously amid cultural similarities and differences. Of equal importance, we must first and foremost retain our own identity. (Kanjananiyot 2006) To pursue this path, we must understand our culture and ourselves.

In Thailand, not much attention was paid to cultural diversity until recently when the country seems to be challenged with threats from the conflicts in the three southernmost provinces. As lessons learned, the situation does shed light on how we could make best use of our cultural diversity for teaching-learning purposes, for harmonized socialization, for creativity and innovation, and for international cooperation.

The Thai Fulbright Association in cooperation with Thailand-U.S. Educational Foundation (TUSEF) jointly conducted a project on ‘Enhancing the Fulbright Philosophy through the Eyes of Thai Alumni’. The project focused on the wealth one could benefit from cultural diversity.

This Cultural Diversity Capsule (CDC Model) (Thai Fulbright Association 2006) was developed by a group of Thai Fulbright alumni and TUSEF who mutually agreed that to foster cross-cultural awareness, we must look at an overall picture with ourselves at its core; how we exist in different layers of cultural contexts. With inside-out and outside-in analysis, we will have a better look on our own cultures, namely, the real values as well as complementary and conflicting ideas. Indeed, diversity could promote personal growth by challenging their stereotyped preconceptions, opening their horizons, and encouraging critical thinking. (Kanjananiyot 2006) Then, we can adopt and adapt ourselves appropriately and effectively.

Similarly, in administration, higher education leaders can learn from cross-cultural analyses, which help reflect their own leadership concepts and styles. Upon understanding their own leadership and organization cultures, they could find ways to make improvement and, at the same time, maintain their core values.


A Combo: Cultural Habits, Comfort Zone, Cultural Diversity, and Diversity

Although quite a number of leaders especially in some agencies assume their positions because of their ‘age’ and thus fall into the ‘seniority trap’, they could and should turn ‘leader-friendly’ environment to maximize their leadership skills.

They could gain advantage of being able to manage their subordinates who tend to take leaders’ orders unarguably. Once in a leading position, they could automatically inherit the ‘comfort zone’ in which they have seen/learned from their predecessors. (Kankananiyot 2005: 28-30) This comfort zone could either be a plus or minus. Leaders must take it as a plus, turning it into their learning platform for leadership development. The very same comfort zone could, however, become a minus when it is shaped to be a closed cell where leaders fall into the ‘seniority trap’ and direct their teams according to what has been traditionally done.

Moreover, they have to ensure that they deploy the organizations’ culturally diverse resources well. Indeed, higher education institutions are the hubs of knowledge in various disciplines as well as the multicultural societies where one can always learn from the other. Education leaders should therefore encourage their staffs, and even students, at all levels, to extend their capabilities, learn, and realize their fullest potential.

‘Senior’ in the traditional sense must be favorably ‘exploited’ to its utmost benefits. This does not mean taking advantage of one’s being ‘more senior’. Rather, this Thai cultural aspect does provide space for Thai leaders to guide their Thai staffs without too many challenges, i.e. whoever in charge could employ their seniority and authority to team up their workforce for projects/ activities quite easily. At the same time, they can use their authority to ‘encourage’ their staff to develop their own leadership skills. That is to say, leaders should take up this opportunity for themselves to gain confidence, sharpening essential leadership skills while serving as an example of leading leaders by showing to the junior that the younger ones too, could make meaningful contribution with their fresh ideas and energy, drawn from their own ethnic/ local cultures.

Take a big step further, richer resources could be reaped from valuing not only cultural diversity, but also diversity. According to Baldrige Criteria, diversity is defined in a rather broad sense. It refers to “valuing and benefiting from personal differences. These differences address many variables including race, religion, color, gender, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, education, geographic origin, and skill characteristics, as well as differences in ideas, thinking, academic disciplines, and perspectives.” (Baldrige 2006) Indeed, diversity and difference are synonymous and are the character of the today’s world.

Diversity promotes personal growth–and nurtures a healthy intellectual society. By challenging stereotyped preconceptions, diversity encourages critical thinking and helps all learn to communicate effectively and to grow intellectually from interacting with people of varied backgrounds. Moreover, it strengthens communities and the workplace”. (Kanjananiyot 2006)

Considering the significance of cultural habits, cultural diversity and diversity, leaders should make sure that they and their subordinates understand and positively employ them so the two could possibly complement each other, igniting creativity and innovation. (Kanjananiyot 2007) By empowering their staff, leaders could effectively lead, maximizing institution resources and grooming younger generations to become even more capable in assuming leading education leaders in the future.


More Learning from Networking

Within the high competitive environment, Thai higher education institutions have to ensure that, at the very least, they must respond to the national and local market demands. As globalization has formed an ‘international’ set of expectations toward global citizens, local institutions have to inculcate into their students international values and qualifications of the so called ‘global citizens’. Staying in one’s own home, we can ‘feel’ the change toward multicultural society as globalization and free trade could lead to the influx of people from different cultures and countries. More often than not, Thailand sees inequitable flows of Thai and other nationals. This means even staying in Thailand, Thais would unexpectedly witness a multicultural society.

With the urge for Thailand to become internationalized, higher education institutions then seek to cooperate with each other to be more internationally aware, more internationally focused, and, at the same time, more internationally recognized, to become internationally viable and comfortable. Networking has become a crucial element to facilitate resource sharing, collaborative researches, information exchanges, and human resource development. Working as a network, they could gain negotiation power for copy rights, joint projects, etc. (Office of the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education 2007: 75) for win-win situations.

Educational collaborations could be forged through inter-regional, inter-state and state partnerships as well as like-minded inter-institutional partnerships to mainly promote intercultural understanding and to offset the knowledge divide by sharing competencies and infrastructure.

Significantly, both collaboration approaches could lead to wider and deeper cooperation at different levels and different natures. Therefore, education leaders should develop their abilities to seek out, tap, and harness networks of collaboration in support of their core missions. In fact, the ability to access and sustain usable network to generate needed resources with speed and skill is becoming the centerpiece of successful leadership. (Thailand-U.S. Educational Foundation 2006)


To Lead and to Let Others Lead from another ‘Comfort Zone’

The world is moving and changes keep coming. There is no way to turn back! Thai leaders should therefore, manage to integrate resources and tools available to maximize performances in order to better handle all the challenges, demands, and expectations imposed on higher education institutions.

A leader and an institution alike need support, help, collaboration, and sharing from within and beyond the institution. In exchange of more efficient and effective work, leaders have to reform themselves by challenging the traditionally concept of ‘leaders’ who always know the best and to always lead. Leaders in today’s world should develop abilities to lead and to let others lead. This requires them to be open… for differences and for opportunities.

To mostly benefit from global environments and numerous higher education contexts, leaders should seek opportunities to enhance their strengths and reduce their weaknesses by creating or joining the networks of collaboration inter-institutionally and internationally.

Having learned and become appreciative of cultural diversity and diversity from their own unique cultures, Thai leaders should see networking as additional challenging platforms for them and their partners to have mutual learning and sharing of experiences throughout the process of cooperation. They should strive to develop forums where they could share and learn, taking up both roles of leading and following.

In regional and international networks, Thai leaders could learn from observing different types of leadership. Naturally, some within a network might be more comfortable not to take lead, practicing their skills as supportive followers to the extent that their experiences enable them to comfortably perform these two roles as leaders and followers. They could further develop themselves to exercise their leadership qualities acquired from home to apply to foreign settings and assess their performances. With their efforts to raise their profile as leaders in a different setting well beyond their own territories, they would gradually become comfortable enough to create other comfort zones in their intra- and inter-country networks.


A Jumbo Combo: Complete ‘Leadership’ Loop

Their crucial challenges to be truly Thai leading leaders who are comfortable to lead and ‘let lead’ are their capabilities to come up with balanced cross-cultural ingredients that fit best with the Thai culture and context.

Thai education leaders should no longer think of themselves as permanent leaders in all types of situations. They should be able to boost their teams’ motivation to build more favorable working cultures in Thailand. In fact, their experiences taking up leading and following roles in foreign settings and international networks should enable them to build the bridge to channel exchanges of positive ideas, experiences, practices, and values into the Thai education community. The ‘lead and let lead’ approaches should be used to speed up learning of and for all in the community.

All in all, they need to make sure that practical applications from experiences and skills they have acquired in other networks beyond their own ‘home’ could enable their respective universities to further develop, producing quality graduates that will be ready to stay competitive, yet, comfortable in the changing world.


Be Positive and Open

Indeed, leaders today do not and should not always lead. To get the most of multicultural environments where higher education institutions exist, education leaders could simply ‘enjoy’ the positive side of the Thai cultural habits for the sake of self, staff and organizational development. Their positive thinking and actions will be supported by their openness. In the Thai context, it means leaders who open their hearts and minds widely to welcome ideas and suggestions from people of diverse backgrounds. Yet, all share similar vision and missions.

With their hearts open, opportunities given, the bridges built, and the resources combined, education leaders could navigate their institutions toward the increasing complex future with enhanced leadership, rooted from a larger comfort zone where identity, cultural diversity, diversity and networking are recognized, ‘exploited’ and most important of all, integral.



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