Article: The CEO of HCLI on the art of resilient leadership


The CEO of HCLI on the art of resilient leadership

Michael Jenkins, CEO of Human Capital Leadership Institute, shares his perspectives on his own notions of leadership, the power of resilience, and the leadership landscape of Southeast Asia.
The CEO of HCLI on the art of resilient leadership

Michael Jenkins is the CEO of HCLI and is charged with implementing the company’s vision to become the preeminent center of excellence for leadership and human capital development in Singapore and beyond. Prior to joining HCLI, Michael led Leadership Development organizations in three leading institutions: Roffey Park, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and INSEAD. Throughout his career, he has played an active role in supporting research and has been a thought leader on organizational resilience, compassionate leadership, and developing more humane and productive workplaces. 

Prior to Roffey Park, he was the Managing Director where he started up the organization’s operations in Asia from Singapore and helped to grow the business significantly, building from scratch a strong team of talented professionals and associates. Before CCL, he spent five years at INSEAD, in France and subsequently in Singapore, where he was responsible for strengthening and developing the school's executive education business in NE Asia, and expanding its footprint in China, Japan, India, and Malaysia.

Michael has a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Studies from the University of Durham and studied Japanese language, politics and economics as a postgraduate at Nanzan University, Nagoya, on a scholarship from Rotary Foundation International. He is a Fellow of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and served as a member of the South-East England Council of the CBI (Confederation of British Industry). Michael was named among HR Magazine UK’s Most Influential Thinkers in 2014 and 2016 and has been a regular judge for the UK's Personnel Today Awards. Michael’s background is tantalizing. Born in Malaysia and raised in Uganda, Michael was sent to Wales for school at the tender age of nine-years which, he thinks, enabled him to develop traits of resilience and tenacity. Although a challenging experience, Jenkins believes that it taught him empathy, having fewer expectations of others,  understanding cultural diversity and appreciating different perspectives. 

Read more to know what Jenkins thinks about the power of resilience and leadership development in the Asian context.

Your upbringing and professional journey is fascinatingly diverse. Tell us about the impact of these shifts on your own journey of leadership and how they have shaped your own notions about the concept of “leadership”?

My upbringing and my diverse experience taught me to be resilient as I had only myself to rely on when I was on my own during my formative years. I believe ‘resilience’ is an internal and inherent source of energy that is a very useful thing especially in a leadership context because when you move up the ranks, you need more of this energy to lead, to make decisions, and to be accountable. The second thing that my experiences taught me was to be non-judgmental. When you live and grow up with a diversity of people and cultures, you tend to cultivate an acceptance of what and how people are. You gain the ability to see things from their perspectives and develop an understanding and appreciation for how other people see the world, which I believe is an extremely valuable attribute. The third thing is, curiosity – particularly when trying to figure out why people do the things they do or why they say the things they say. Inquisitiveness, the curiosity to know others, has provided me with an endless learning experience. 

How do you create contexts for others to be resilient when they probably haven’t had the opportunity of going through hardship and bouncing back from it?

Resilience is arguably inherent and internal to an individual; it is something an individual possesses that forms part of his/her personality. I also believe resilience is a developable attribute and as we know, there are many dimensions that can contribute to resilience. The prevalent literature on resilience suggests that it is the ability to survive something or, having gone through some kind of hardship, making it through and then returning to the status quo. Whereas, in fact, what we ought to be doing is to reframe and re-characterize resilience as an opportunity to bounce forward, to use the hardship that one has endured as a learning experience. 

One way in which we can build resilience is through self-awareness and thinking deeply about how we attend to our own self-development. This means deliberately putting yourself into a ‘zone of disequilibrium’ and challenging yourself to take action – for example, being determined about resolving one thing, one issue that you habitually shy away from addressing. But one must deliberately seek out and then go into this zone of disequilibrium: remaining in our comfort zones is what holds us back. But there is also a downside to thinking that you are more resilient than you really are. It gives people the feeling of being self-sufficient and can mitigate against reaching out to others for support or help. I believe that’s where one has to think about the importance of admitting to, and being, vulnerable, and being able to say to your team that you don’t have all the answers and that you need help – I think that’s probably a counter-balance to being ultra-resilient. 

You have an extensive experience and a strong track record in managing leadership development organizations across multiple markets. Tell us how is leadership different in Asia compared to other economies? 

Leadership models have been developed predominantly from an erstwhile American or European perspective which is a big challenge because often, we try to force-feed them into other cultural contexts and settings. Although it would not be wrong to say that such models have fared well in a number of organizations and have contributed significantly in some cases to economic prosperity outside their home geographies, the assumption that classic American or European leadership development tools – such as formal, 360° feedback, psychometrics etc. have to be put in place for real or effective leadership development to happen – turns out to be quite problematic because such approaches often won’t work in certain cultural contexts and environments. This is due to those different cultural nuances that dictate organizational behaviors and employee behaviors. For example, getting 360° feedback can be hard in certain cultures in East Asia where people might feel anxious about asking other people to comment on their performance, or giving feedback about someone else (especially a senior leader).  

The prevalent model of global leadership or the yardstick that we have to measure leadership rests on leaders being strong, assertive and decisive, communicating directly and making decisions quickly.  But leaders differ across Asia. Asian leadership models rest on context and take into account the history, values, beliefs and the economic situation of each country. Some prefer directive leadership while others prefer supportive leadership.

We need to reframe and re-characterize resilience as an opportunity to bounce forward, to use the hardship that one has endured as a learning experience

And as the axis of power and influence starts to shift, I think we will start to see more and more questioning of the prevailing notions of leadership and leadership development theory. There is going to be a growing phenomenon whereby the Asia Pacific will develop new thinking, new perceptions, and alternative courses of leadership action that will reflect less the existing western thinking and may also contradict or even come into conflict with it. My hope is that Asia will be able to make new and valuable contributions which will benefit not just Asia, but the world as a whole.

How important is agility in leadership frameworks or models that organizations operate on so that they can be contextualized to the local culture or cultures of the organizations?

I think we need to be less dogmatic about what is right and what is wrong. It would be good to move away from acronym-based leadership frameworks. Times are changing and we need to build in more open-mindedness in our perceptions and thinking. There has to be a certain amount of desire to experiment with different models that suit the contexts and cultures of very diverse organizations. One of the organizations that come to my mind that is being agile in their approach is Johnson & Johnson. They had their “Credo” set up 100 years ago and it is interesting to see that the credo, their set of values and beliefs, is still very much the foundational building block of their whole corporate culture which has only had to be tinkered with ever so slightly, to suit the language of our changing times. Agile doesn’t always have to imply massive change. Nuanced change also has the potential to be long-lasting and effective.

In terms of generational differences, evolving expectations, and changes in the psychological contract, leaders will have to pay attention to the fact that the younger generation wants the opportunity to co-create the organizational culture

Do you think organizations are using technology for accelerating and personalizing their leadership development? 

Technology affords us the potential to really customize learning journeys for individuals. One of the exciting challenges is that there is such a huge wealth of leadership development information out there that sometimes it is bewildering to figure out where one might go first. There are many innovative companies leveraging technology for curated learning, using technology for micro-learning or mobile phone-based learning. There is also in-classroom learning and various shades of blended learning and learning supported by online materials. However, it is also worth noting that events, conferences, and seminars are still the preferred ways of going about leadership development especially in this part of the world, which I also think speaks of the desire for human interaction in a tech-driven world. 

How do you think leadership development will change in the next five years? 

I think the starting point would be future-proofing. While the term “future-proofing” is something of an oxymoron (“can you really “future-proof”?), it is a useful term or constructs for people to use because it forces us to think about how prepared we really are when we think about the future and what it will bring. Future proofing (perhaps we can think of it as “future-preparedness”) encompasses both the organization and the individual and how you prepare both for what is to come. This means having an equivalent of an antenna that picks up intelligence from a multiplicity of different sources to help you form your strategies around what it is going to take to be truly “future-prepared”. 

In terms of generational differences, evolving expectations, and changes in the psychological contract, leaders will also have to pay attention to the fact that the younger generation wants the opportunity to co-create the organizational culture — this is something that leaders will have to absorb and address. Such expectations have ramifications for our thinking around what makes for leadership development into the future – the design, content, and delivery of leadership development itself will come under pressure to change.

There is also a lot of talk about new workplace or organizational models like holacracy, but I think a certain degree of hierarchy, where the leader as a role-model is plain for all to see - is not only desirable but perhaps potentially rather helpful: the signs are that the younger generation will accord respect and follow leaders not because of their positional power alone,  but by how ethical their senior leaders are, or how the younger generation feels about a particular leader.

Leaders will have a lot of pressure to be prepared, to pay attention to generational differences, and to be open-minded about technology. They will have to cultivate the ability to be non-judgmental, ethical, and remain calm under pressure while being clear about what they really stand for. Consistency in the psychological sense is what people look for along with a certain degree of predictability in this unpredictable world. 

I hope that we will eventually be able to move into an era which history will regard as an antidote to the populism, nationalism, and jingoism emerging in so many parts of our world today. I’m eternally optimistic that we can return to the fundamental fact that we are all human beings and that we have the capability amongst many, to create not just a better, more sustainable world but as part of that, more humane workplaces. And if we could also encourage people to show up at work as their true selves, we would see some wonderful benefits in terms of healthier, happier people - which would eventually mean more productive people and a greater potential for shared success. 


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Topics: Leadership, Life @ Work

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