Posted Aug 23, 2017
The Honest Inquiry Interview Series: A conversation with Jean-Pierre Lehmann
You’ve talked to participants on our leadership programmes about the importance of global awareness and understanding other cultures as an essential aspect of being an effective business leader. Could you share your thoughts on the same with our readers?
It depends on your time-horizon. If you want to make a short-term opportunistic killing in a particular market – say quickly acquiring assets and then splitting them up for lucrative scale – global awareness and understanding are not necessary. In fact, they may get in the way!
If, however, you see a business not just as a short-term profit-making operation, but as a living organism composed of and dealing with human beings, it is vital to understand societies, to be able to empathise with what drives people in a particular region when they get up in the morning, and thereby to enrich not only your bottom line, but your culture and humanity. This requires, inter alia, mixing and socialising with the local populations.
I am often dispirited to see how expatriates hang together and develop few really genuine relationships outside their circle. The expat executive in Vietnam, for example, should study Vietnamese history, read Vietnamese novels (in translation if need be), meet Vietnamese people from different professional backgrounds, travel around the country, attend festivals. In other words, whether the expat in Vietnam is a Japanese, a Belgian or a Canadian, during her/his period in Vietnam, s/he should be a good “Vietnamese citizen”.
What are the three global shifts you believe will have the biggest impact on the business landscape in the 21st century?
A permanent fixture of our core curriculum is our take on business ethics. We call the session: Behaviour Before Brand. It offers a platform for participants to share, listen and explore (rather than be told) how to think about the essence of ethical leadership.
The three global shifts that will have the biggest impact on the business landscape in the 21st century are...
There are of course other fundamental shifts, including geopolitical, environmental and digital, but the thread that is intimately linked to all of them are the radical unprecedented demographic transformations. These include, but are not limited to, the global geographical distribution of population basically between a rapidly ageing north and a population-booming south.
To cite only two examples: in 1950 Africa accounted for less than 9% of world population, by 2050 it will be 20%; the corresponding figures for Europe are 22% and 7%. This has immense implications in every respect. Thus, while another major shift is digitalisation and robotisation, the implications for demographics, in particular the creation of employment, are enormous.
Urbanisation: in 1950, approximately 20% of the world population was urban and 80% rural. Since 2005, the global urban population has surpassed the global rural population. By 2050, it should be about 75% urban.
Along with these developments, there has been the stupendous rise of a newly emerging middle-income group, especially, but not exclusively in Asia. Twenty years ago the number of overseas Chinese tourists were very few and very far between. Last year they were 150 million! Chinese tourists are the biggest spenders in France – as well as being by quite far the biggest market for Bordeaux wines and cognac!
The indicators above are few among many, many demographic shifts. As noted in the rich countries (including Hong Kong), ageing is the most pronounced feature: since the beginning of this century sales of incontinent towels in Japan surpass, by more and more every year, the sales of nappies. Needless to say, there are also huge resource (especially food and water) implications arising from demographic shifts.
What can business leaders do to prepare for the challenges and opportunities that will accompany these changes?
There are some fantastic visionary globally-oriented socially-minded business leaders out there. Generally, however, it has to be said that there is far too much short-termism and parochialism. In his splendid report, "Thinking the Unthinkable," Nik Gowing wrote that virtually all business and political leaders admitted (confidentially!) that they did not have the foggiest notion of where the world was heading. This is partly because they have been nurtured by soothing jargon-full highly oversimplified formulas of “The World is Flat” variety.
There is an imperative for in-depth assessment of the global driving forces and the events, issues, and developments to look out for while identifying potential black swans. When I was young (!!) I had the formidable privilege of working with Pierre Wack, the man who founded the scenario planning methodology at Royal Dutch Shell.
It was inaugurated after the first 1973-oil “crisis” which caught the Shells, BPs, Totals, Chevron, Esso, Mobile, etc, with their proverbial analytical pants down. In developing narratives, Wack incessantly posed the “what if?” question. He strongly warned against extrapolation. This is still what far too many banks and “think” tanks do.
The whole world economy and many sectors specifically are today highly dependent on the Chinese locomotive. Corporate leaders who are not engaged in scenario planning with special attention to China are being irresponsible.
You’ve travelled extensively for your work including many visits to countries that are often misrepresented in the western media – China, Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh to name a few. How has your first-hand experience of these countries changed your view of the world?
Among the many countries I have travelled in the world throughout my life (I first travelled long distance from France to Japan when I was five in 1950) there are only two countries that I did not like and in which I felt uncomfortable. There are some I have not been to, but know a priori I would not like and would feel uncomfortable, so I do not go. Top of that short list, as a committed feminist, is Saudi Arabia.
Otherwise, I would stress that while there are odious regimes, I have not come across odious populations/people. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s I frequently travelled across the Soviet Union. The regime sucked, but the Russian people I came across were warm and hospitable.
More recently, I have had a similar experience in Iran. The people and their attitudes to me at least were really warm and positive. As a Westerner (which I am), I always feel it is also very important to put things in historical perspectives. We (the West) have had some pretty awful regimes and some pretty awful practices. When I first went to the US in 1960, I was profoundly shocked by the discrimination against blacks. Britain and France may claim they represent western “values” of freedom and human justice, though there was not much evidence of either in the territories they occupied in Africa and Asia. To come back to , had there not been the CIA plotted coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh – in whose place the highly unpopular dictatorial Shah was imposed – it is very possible that the ayatollahs would not be ruling in Tehran today.
One has to avoid passing judgement and condemning. Of course, not to condemn does not mean necessarily to condone. The nature of the Myanmar government may be in part the legacy of the British empire, but no one can possibly condone the Buddhist fundamentalist persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas minority. Rather than a prior deplore, it is better to explore with humility and perspective. Having been to Iran, I would never refer to Iranians as an “evil empire”; That is one of the many differences between me and George W Bush!
Not everyone has the opportunity to travel the world so extensively. What are some effective strategies business leaders can employ to proactively broaden their knowledge of global issues that don’t involve getting on a plane?
The great, indeed truly outstanding translator of classical Chinese and Japanese literature Arthur Waley, who wrote mainly in the interwar years, never actually went to either Japan or China. Though he literally adored the literature and the culture, he despised the regimes – the dictator Chiang Kai-shek in China and Emperor Hirohito in Japan. That was of course exceptional.
Today millions think they are travelling, but are not really; in other words they bring with them their prejudices, stereotypes, and ignorance, not to mention their devices. If I could rule the planet (!) I would order that all who go to a particular destination should be forced to pass one of my “literacy tests”.
OK, you want to go to China, first a few questions:
Perhaps the last question... who or what is SHN48?
Out of some 20 questions covering history, politics, literature, etc, those who get less than 50% would not be allowed to travel to their desired destination without submitting to another exam.
But generally, my advice is to go.
Nothing can replace an actual well prepared visit. Of course there are those who for various reasons (medical, financial, judicial) cannot travel. Then they should read, watch documentaries, listen to those who do travel and have interesting things to say. After all, the origins of the publication of Marco Polo’s travels come from the time he spent in prison in Genoa and regaled his cellmates with his magnificent stories; they were taken down by the romancer Rustichello of Pisa who put plume to paper.
You founded the Evian Group in 1995 to promote a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable market economy. In the 20 years since you and your colleagues first articulated this mission do you think we’ve moved closer or further away from this goal?
In many respects, yes, the world economy is far more inclusive, equitable and sustainable than it was about a quarter-of-a-century ago. Citizens of the erstwhile Soviet dominated “Second World” have been liberated and can now participate in the global market economy, including through travelling. The same applies with the massive poverty reduction in the erstwhile “Third World.” The world is more equitable and inclusive than it was, without a doubt. (Though I am not claiming credit for the Evian Group!) Recent developments – that bombastic disaster Trump notwithstanding – also provide some glimmer of hope for it being more sustainable.
Developments in China especially have been impressive.
The 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are comprehensive and inspiring. Comparing COP 15 (Copenhagen) with COP 21 (Paris) tells an encouraging tale of greater awareness and willingness to tackle climate change. So trends are encouraging, albeit with a small “e”. There are many daunting challenges ahead and we are by no means close to our destination.
This is why the work of GIFT is so important and also why, after a period of hibernation, I decided to re-launch the Evian Group and to give it a much greater focus on sustainability. So we can be encouraged, not discouraged, but if we become complacent, we are heading for Armageddon!
You’re a big fan of the ASEAN bloc, which also happens to be where many participants on our leadership programmes hail from and where the majority of our field projects take place. China’s “One Belt One Road” is already making waves in the region - how do you think China’s grand scheme is going to impact ASEAN in the long run?
My first major (over a few months) trip to Southeast Asia was in 1967. I have calculated I was almost certainly in Bangkok on August 8th 1967 when the Bangkok ASEAN Declaration was made. Though this is with the benefit of hindsight. I am pretty sure I was not aware of it at the time. In the mid/late sixties, Southeast Asia was a poor, backward, war-torn, unstable area that no sensible investor – unless s/he was in drugs or arms – would touch with a barge pole. ASEAN was not to be taken very seriously in view of it's being arguably at the time the planet’s worse hell-hole.
With Richard Nixon’s totally unexpected visit to Mao in Beijing in 1972, followed by the US being expelled from Vietnam, the winds began to change – even though there were still severe storms ahead, notably the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. The American “justification” for the war waged against the Vietnamese people was the so-called “domino theory”: ie if the Vietnamese domino “falls” to communism, as with dominos so will Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc, etc, etc across the planet. As David Halberstram brilliantly demonstrated in his 1972 book “The Best and the Brightest” the American war in Vietnam was based on a colossal combination of ignorance and arrogance. Also very much worth reading to get a good sense of the “culture” of the Vietnam war is the much more recent (2016) publication by Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the History of War”.
In any case, what began occurring in the course of the 1980swas what might be termed a “reverse domino theory”. One-by-one Southeast Asian countries undertook market-oriented reforms and joined the world economy, initially as producers, but also as consumers. As implicit in the title of Kishore Mahbubani’s latest book, “The ASEAN Miracle” bearing in mind the hell-hole the region came from, there is something “miraculous” of where it got to. If more regions of the world, especially Central and West Asia could emulate the ASEAN narrative, the world would be an infinitely better place.
There is, of course, still poverty and injustice in ASEAN countries, the politics are a bit ropey, and territorial tensions continue to divide some of the countries. So there is still a ways to go for improvement. And there are geopolitical challenges ahead. Kishore Mahbubani makes the point that one of the most favourable factors in the emergence of ASEAN was that following Nixon’s historic visit and in light of the tension of US-USSR relations during some of the frostier moments of the Cold War, in Southeast Asia the US and China sought collaboration rather than confrontation. That is changing.
This is why the work of GIFT is so important and also why, after a period of hibernation, I decided to re-launch the Evian Group and to give it a much greater focus on sustainability. So we can be encouraged, not discouraged, but if we become complacent, we are heading for Armageddon
Indeed the geopolitical paradigm of this half at least of the 21st century would seem to be increasingly dominated by US-China rivalry, including in the South China Sea. The Chinese are seeking to assert their version of the Monroe Doctrine (according to which the US claimed a monopoly of power and influence in the Caribbean) in the South China Sea. Managing this rivalry without becoming engulfed by one or the other will be the greatest challenge of the ASEAN countries now and in the years ahead. One Belt One Road may be the proper vehicle in which to do so, though this is a bit too early to judge now.
Aside from China, probably the biggest and most urgent challenge is to embed ASEAN more into the individual ASEAN societies. At the moment, ASEAN is an elite project, meaningful to political leaders and some business leaders but otherwise only dimly recognised by the people at large. If it is to survive and thrive the next fifty years, ASEAN will have to gain widespread popular recognition, respect and attachment.
Write to us if you have requests or suggestions for future interviews for the GIFT Blog!
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Karim joined GIFT in 2010 after participating in the Global Leaders Programme and has since designed and facilitated dozens of experiential programmes for high potential executives and government officials. In his current role Karim leads the ASEAN office and is responsible for GIFT’s regional activities and programmes across Southeast Asia. Prior to GIFT Karim spent a decade in Mainland China where he was a partner in a successful nationwide food and beverage business. Karim’s articles on insights gathered through GIFT programmes have appeared in a range of publications. He has an MBA from the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing and is a proficient Mandarin speaker.
In addition to leading GIFT’s dynamic team and business, since 2008, Eric has facilitated more than 50 experiential leadership programmes in fifteen countries. He is well versed in introducing new ideas on governance, business and sustainability and coaching participants to think critically about their role as leaders. Before joining GIFT, Eric spent several years managing multi-stakeholder partnerships between global brands and civil society groups in the United States and China. He writes and speaks regularly on topics related to leadership development and the changing role of business in society. Eric is an alumnus of Standford University and holds a Masters from Hong Kong University.
For more than three decades, Chandran has advised governments and MNCs on strategic management, leadership issues and sustainability, and is often invited to facilitate for top corporate education providers including Duke CE, INSEAD and NUS. He was previously Chairman of ERM in Asia Pacific, helping establish it as the world’s leading environmental consultancy. Chandran is on the Executive Committee of the Club of Rome and is a member of WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Governance for Sustainability and Experts Forum, where his thought leadership is sought for its fresh insights and intellectual honesty. He is the author of the best-seller – Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet, and The Sustainable State: The Future of Government, Economy and Society.