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PUBLISHED ARTICLE (REDUX) Shortcomings of Lawrence Summers's & Thaksin Shinawatra's leadership styles
26-Aug-09 [ by Larry Chao ] 9193 Read and 1 Comment

Both Lawrence Summers and Thaksin Shinawatra are discovering that the CEO-leadership style‚ while often effective at driving change‚ has its thorny drawbacks when trying to build support across broad constituencies‚ writes Larry Chao.


Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers is learning an important lesson about managing educational institutions: That the hard driving CEO-leadership style may achieve results; but it sputters when trying to win support on controversial issues.  Summers?s style brings to mind the style of another leader closer to home‚ Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.


While both Thaksin and Summers have proven themselves as effective leaders in the private sector and in government respectively‚ the management practice that brought them success in the past ? a CEO leadership style characterized by centralized decision-making and often a brusque indifference toward opposing viewpoints‚ is less effective when dealing with volatile constituencies‚ who demand a voice in decision-making.


The 50-year-old Summers‚ who came to Harvard in July 2001 from the U.S. Treasury Department with the mandate to revitalize the institution for the 21st Century‚ faces a disgruntled faculty‚ increasingly chagrined at his abrasive management style.  Over the past three years‚ he has swept aside consultative decision-making in favor of a more centralized approach.  This has often resulted in confrontations with the faculty over issues regarding curriculum design‚ individual behaviors‚ and expansion plans for the University.


His latest episode‚ which exacerbated and shed light on his management problems‚ occurred earlier last month‚ when he commented at a National Bureau of Economics Research  Conference that ?intrinsic aptitude? might explain why fewer women reached top academic positions in science and math. Later‚ in a letter he apologized to the faculty admitting that he should have ?left such speculation to those more expert in the relevant fields.?  Nevertheless‚ some outraged professors are calling for a referendum on his leadership.


Thaksin faces a similar dilemma in Thailand‚ where simmering Muslim discontent in the deep South threatens to mar his admirable economic track record.  Either he can continue to push for a solution by enforcing policies such as his highly controversial village zoning scheme‚ or he can defuse the conflict by diplomatically trying to pinpoint the problem.


But seeing the advantages of a more consultative management style may be difficult.  So far‚ Thaksin?s CEO-leadership style has produced tangible gains and immense popularity. The pros of this style are that a leader can define a single plan and allocate resources accordingly.  Decisions can be made unilaterally and quickly. This is precisely the type of leadership style Thailand needed when Thaksin was elected four years ago.


The cons of this style are that it risks alienating constituencies‚ who disagree with the leader?s approach.  This can be detrimental‚ as good ideas are squandered and differing opinions disregarded.  Trouble arises if opposing constituencies have the courage and power to speak out.


In the case of Lawrence Summers‚ most of the Harvard faculty members have tenure and therefore the power to provide staunch opposition.  As for the situation here in Thailand‚ if mishandled‚ the social unrest in the South threatens to mushroom into a bigger problem‚ as sympathizers question whether democratic values are being oppressed.  Given what is at stake‚ both Summers and Thaksin need to rethink a more conciliatory approach‚ rather than force-fitting a ?one-size fits all? CEO-leadership style.


At Harvard‚ Summers has already begun this process.  To quell faculty discontent and regain their support‚ he has openly pledged to adapt his management style and treat people more respectfully. His goal is to continue effective decision-making‚ while working more inclusively with the faculty.


For Thaksin‚ his recent initiative to call for a joint parliamentary session of the Senate and House to debate possible solution is also a step in the right direction. Keeping the country on track economically and protecting social order must be his overarching theme.  If so‚ this will encourage him to create more dialogue when dealing with divisive issues.  No doubt history will judge Thaksin? performance as Prime Minister based on how well he nurtures the country‚ as well as how well he upholds the rights and welfare of all who live here.


Larry Chao is managing Director of Chao Group an organization change and training consultancy located in Bangkok and New York (larry@chaogroup.com).



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