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Learning about Collaborative Leadership in Thailand

Reos Partners
June, 2017


By Adam Kahane and Sumit Champrasit

The two of us have worked together since 2010 on a series of initiatives aimed at helping Thai leaders address some of the country’s most important political, economic, and social challenges. Some of these initiatives have produced great results, and others have not. From these experiences, we have learned some fundamental lessons about the nature of the leadership required to make progress on such complex issues.

We began this work after the bloody political conflicts of 2008-2010, which produced grave concerns among Thais about the future of their country. Our first initiative was a transformative scenarios process that brought together 35 political, civil service, business, trade union, and NGO leaders to think through the possibilities for what Thailand might look like over the next 25 years. This team worked between April and August 2013 to make sense of what was going on in Thailand. They shared their varied experiences and understandings with one another and also met with academic experts and ordinary people. Out of this immersion, they discerned three interrelated dynamics: social and cultural tensions, economic and environmental pressures, and political and institutional constraints. They concluded that the future would depend not so much on the specifics of what Thais did to manage these dynamics as on how they managed them.

Three Stances

The team identified three basic stances that Thais could take toward their country’s challenges. They named these stances We Adapt, We Force, and We Collaborate.

In We Adapt, Thais would focus on looking after themselves, their families, and the organizations they were part of, and leave addressing the larger societal challenges to others, especially the government and elites. This was the approach that most individuals and organizations were used to taking.

In We Force, many people would become involved in political movements to push for or impose top-down solutions to these challenges. They would fight to win. Thais had taken this stance in the past, most recently during the conflicts of 2008–2010.

In We Collaborate, many people would get involved in new cross-factional and cross-sectoral efforts to develop a multitude of bottom-up solutions. This approach had the least precedent in Thailand.

The team’s primary conclusion was that Thais would be unable to address their complex challenges if the dominant stance they took was either of the two more familiar ones, We Adapt or We Force. The issues were too complex and the society too polarized for a successful way forward to be dictated from the top down by any particular faction of experts and authorities. Thais would be able to address their challenges only if the stance they took was the less familiar and more inclusive We Collaborate. Based on this determination, the team launched a movement in Thailand to build this capacity, which they called “Collaborate We Can.”

“Collaborate We Can”

Collaborate We Can has been the primary platform for our experimentation and learning over the past four years. We learned our most fundamental lesson right at the outset. In November 2013, the two of us met with our colleagues in Bangkok to finish writing the team’s report. Our thinking about what could happen in the country was, however, quickly overtaken by what we could see on television was actually happening. The government had attempted to pass a law to give amnesty to politicians for offenses committed during previous periods of unrest. In response, hundreds of thousands of antigovernment protesters who thought this law was corrupt organized mass rallies, pushed their way into government buildings, and demanded that the elected parliament be replaced by an appointed council. Each side denounced its opponents as irrational, bad, or traitorous. Our team’s worst fear—that the country would descend into civil war—now seemed possible.

We were disappointed by this collapse of the team’s efforts to enact a We Collaborate scenario. Moreover, we were surprised that many of our colleagues, convinced that at this juncture collaboration meant capitulation, were working to enact different variations of We Force through their enthusiastic support for either pro- or antigovernment actions.

Throughout the first months of 2014, the political conflict continued in the parliament, the courts, and the streets. The antigovernment protestors occupied parts of central Bangkok, seized government buildings, and forcibly prevented the election of a new government. The government declared a state of emergency and tried to close down occupied sites. The two sides held talks to try to resolve the conflict, but these failed. Finally, in May 2014, the army implemented their own We Force option: They staged a coup, established a junta to govern the country, declared martial law, censored the media, and detained politicians and activists—including some from our team.

Over these months, then, the three options the team had described had all been in play. But as the national crisis intensified, many Thais abandoned We Adapt and We Collaborate for We Force. They no longer saw collaboration with their opponents and enemies as the best option, instead finding it unpalatable and impractical.

This basic learning—that collaboration is not always seen as the best option—motivated us and our colleagues to refocus our efforts. We decided to turn our attention and support to initiatives in contexts where key stakeholders had expressed a willingness to collaborate. Building on the understandings and relationships that had been growing in and around the scenario team since 2010, we launched a series of multi-stakeholder system change initiatives in the fields of agriculture, education, and anti-corruption. All of these initiatives engaged stakeholders from multiple positions and perspectives, both in talking about what they thought needed to be done to deal with their specific challenge and in experimenting on the ground to find out what worked and didn’t work.

Two Dimensions of Collaborative Leadership

When we reflect on the collaborative efforts we have been involved in, we observe that a particular kind of two-dimensional leadership is required to advance these efforts. On the one hand, leaders of such initiatives need to be committed and determined to make progress, have the authority and resources necessary to take the necessary actions, and be willing to be held accountable for what they do. On the other hand, they must be genuinely open to not knowing, making mistakes, and—most fundamentally—changing what they themselves are doing.

We emphasize these two dimensions of leadership because many people misunderstand what it takes to succeed in collaborative endeavors.

The first misunderstanding is the belief that, because collaboration requires a public-spirited and open-hearted orientation, conventional leadership qualities such as commitment, authority, and accountability are not relevant. This misunderstanding is revealed in undisciplined execution.

The second, opposite misunderstanding is that collaboration only requires conventional leadership and can be accomplished through hierarchy and control. This misunderstanding is revealed in arrogance and rigidity.

Our point is that, to be successful, collaboration requires both a powerful drive to move forward and an openness to listening, learning, and adjusting course.

Most of the leaders we have encountered do not have this two-dimensional capacity and find it difficult, even frightening, to build it. That is why, more often than not, collaborative initiatives fail: we have often seen promising collaborations fall short of their potential because their leaders are competent in one but not both dimensions. Yet we persist in seeking out and working with those leaders who are willing to do this difficult work, because we continue to be inspired by the conclusion of the first team we worked with: that in Thailand, as elsewhere, such collaboration is the only way we can successfully address our complex and pressing challenges.

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