Leadership for the 21st Century
These five weeks were among the most extraordinary of my life. This was some of the most important work I have ever done.
(First, let me apologize for the lack of writing in the last few weeks. Teaching got crazy, we spent much time focused on Hurricane Sandy and our relatives back east, and I lost control over time. I expect to write a number of messages about Asia in the next week or so.)
It is difficult to describe what teaching in Asia, especially Viet Nam, meant to me. The focus here is on Viet Nam, because we had 4 full weeks there. I taught two hours each day (the typical PSU course is four hours/week). I believe that China would have had the same impact; however, all I had there were three two-hour lectures.
It was amazing what the students
learned. We were told that these students were the best in their program, and they did not
disappoint. They were learning English and HRM simultaneously, so I covered less than I would normally cover in a similar PSU course. However, focusing and
concentrating did wonders to their work. Their projects were
commensurate with what our juniors would do, all being clearly acceptable or higher.
Their verbal abilities increased amazingly over time, especially as Jeanna spent more and more personal time with them. We put a money jar in the room, required them to contribute 1000 Vietnamese Dong (all of 5 cents!) toward the final day's party whenever they spoke Vietnamese. It was a badge of pride to not contribute! I forced the microphone in their face, and they had no choice but to speak.
And then there was Jeanna's work with them, sometimes in small groups, often one-on-one. She coached and nurtured them. Where I can be intimidating, she was everyone's friend. She got the best out of them. The results showed.
We also worked on their study skills. They began with a different perspective on taking notes, one that may have worked for them so far, but that would not lead to the results we desired. It was as simple as telling them to take notes on project work that they performed in class, project work where they began writing their final reports in class. They had to keep track of what we did in class; most had never done this previously. We had to teach them to do it. They learned quickly.
Their final oral reports were incredible. They had the necessary HRM content, their language skills had clearly improved, and many of them projected their voice to the back of the room. We were quite pleased.
Some of the groups used video; we are enclosing one for you. Although not directly HRM related, it shows the job they analyzed (bartender in a coffee shop), and is an example of the flair and humor many of them had.
I can't say enough for what happened in our four weeks in Viet Nam. Their development was enormous. They worked hard, soaked up what we gave them, retained interest. They jumped higher than we had ever seen with any group. We are excited for them. We'll be back.
If you grew up in the '50s and '60s you probably revered Ike, JFK, or both. You heard great tales of Truman, and of some of the great generals. Yet after all these years, I wonder: what could they have been thinking.
Let's cut to the quick.
A modern external army could never win a war in Viet Nam unless they were prepared to lose an indefinite number of men. The heat here is unbearable, the rain ruthless, the jungles formidable. When I put air conditioning on in university buildings to make myself comfortable, the locals put on their sweaters. Live here all your life and you become used to the heat. After three weeks here my energy is sapped. Were we not doing what is important, what we truly love, and what feeds our soul, we wouldn't be here.
Be 18 years old and come here to fight a war? The jungles of the Mekong Delta must have been awful. Day after day after day of inhumane conditions. How could any of our generals (Westmoreland, of course, is at the top of the list, but he didn't lead us until 1964) have thought we could have won? What could they have been thinking? Had they emerged from WW II and Korea thinking we were invincible? Korea?
We've been in Viet Nam for 3 weeks. We've been pampered, driven, taken care of, and received whatever we've asked for. Our hosts are extraordinary. We are here at the end of the rainy and hot season, so it is becoming marginally comfortable during the day, pleasant at night.
Yet this is Viet Nam, folks. When it is hot, you can not imagine it. My t-shirt gets soaked in ten minutes outside. The air is so thick that we rarely see Ho Chi Minh City from our 9th floor apartment, only ~30 miles away.
If you've been reading the blog you saw the pictures and commentary from the Mekong Delta, and you've seen the videos of the downpours. And the rain is letting up now. Wait till rainy season.
What could they have been thinking?
Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, while all military men, acted with political interests (domino theory, Russians, etc.) while President. That's the job of the President. They have military commanders who give military guidance. Famously, Truman fired MacArthur when he wanted to escalate the Korean conflict. Later on, however, someone forgot to act as President when he should have.
Let's backtrack for a brief history lesson. (note that anything I say could be wrong. I am an HRM Prof, not a historian. What I write below is pieced together from anecdotes and my own reading. I like to think it's accurate, but....)
Many others, most notably the Chinese and the French, have ruled Viet Nam for long periods in the recent past. The French arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century and did not want to leave. Who would; if you but visited Saigon once, you would not want to leave either. The French legacy: traffic circles, baguettes, and drink.
Prior to Sept. 2, 1945, the US gave tacit support to Ho Chi Minh in the battle for freedom. However, when Ho declared independence, the French wanted to stay. The US: support our long time ally. Ho went Communist; he became the enemy.
The French lost the next war (1945-1954--google Dien Bien Phu for details) but we called it a tie! Rather than allowing a free Viet Nam, we divided the country, promising free elections. We then installed the ruthless Ngo Dinh Diem, who canceled the elections. We assassinated Diem. OOPS! War was on.
By this time LBJ was President. He knew from the first that this war would destroy him. He had to move on the Great Society and Civil Rights as fast as possible. Fortunately he was successful on those fronts. His days, however, were numbered.
Sidebar: Revolutions are started by those who feel oppressed. The leaders use the working poor, the underclass, to fan the fire, to fight the oppressors. 1775 George Washington is no different from 1959 Fidel Castro (yes, there were significant differences later; I'm only talking about the actual revolt).
What was happening on the battlefield?
Jeanna and I received our best analysis from our tour guide in the
Mekong Delta, a young woman with no axe to grind.
She made it clear: in the 1950s and 1960s the wealthy wanted the status quo. In different wars they were with King George and Batista. Here they wanted the French, and later became one with Diem.
The poor were with Ho.
After the war American soldiers complained: "we were fighting for their freedom. All we wanted was for them to let us know that an ambush had been set down the road. They knew, and just let us walk into it."
Yet it was only in our eyes that we were fighting for their freedom. The villagers who allowed our soldiers to be ambushed were with Ho! Communist Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh who never trusted the Russians or the Chinese, Ho Chi Minh meant freedom from oppression.
The villagers couldn't care less about communism.
Our generals: what could they have been thinking? First and foremost, Americans from New York, Portland, Tuscaloosa, and Des Moines, no matter how well prepared and equipped, were ill-suited to fight in the jungles and humidity of this country.
What could they have been thinking? Our idea of freedom was so far removed from that of the villagers who had their own meaning of freedom.
And finally: yesterday I posted pictures of my class on facebook. A friend said, "they look so young. Were we ever that young?"
Their grandfathers, at their age, were fighting for their freedom. They were fighting us, they were fighting each other. 18 year old baby faced boys, five foot four inches, even smaller than I am, carried rifles and were killed. Because our generals thought we should be here and could win a war to save the world for democracy.
This war ended Sept. 2, 1945. Ho knew that we would not have the resolve to continue, that he was right. The war was over Sept. 2. But it took 30 more years for it to be complete.
What could they have been thinking?
For me, if there was something I had to see/do while in Viet Nam, it was visit the Mekong Delta. Growing up in the 1960s, the Mekong Delta was one of the most used phrases from the war. But Delta: the only deltas I knew at the time were the Mississippi Delta and Delta Dawn (if you're not old enough for that reference, you can google it, something we couldn't do back then). We had no idea what the Mekong Delta was.
Jeanna and I had previously been on two of the great rivers of the world together, the Nile in 2008 and the Amazon in 2010. Each time we were mystified by the great river, thrilled to be on it. Fishing for piranha on the Amazon, and searching for idols on the Nile. What would be in store for us today? After >3 hours in the car from Binh Duong (if you're checking on a map, our actual location is Thu Dau Mot, just north of HCMC), we got to our destination, My Tho. On the way we got the usual Saturday morning traffic, almost all motorbikes. And some views of the rice paddies.
Our tour guide, Trang, led us onto the first of the two boats we would be on for the day. This is a pretty good example of what the Mekong traffic looked like that day; our boat was swift, the day was hot, the breeze felt great. Not a care in the world.
Our first stop, of course, was food. This picture of desserts does not do it justice; we've already eaten half of it. We learned to use spices differently. Try adding a pinch of salt and then some cayenne pepper to your pineapple. What a taste sensation. My favorite, for a number of reasons, was the fruit that you peeled off the hard brown shell, revealing a jellied surface (top left) with the hard black seed inside. You eat the jelly and delete the seed. Delish! We took a donkey cart through the village, then a walk, and, out of nowhere, another deluge. Yes, I love videos of the rain, so here is another one. We have a picture of the delightful family that rescued us. Jeanna always carries pencils for the kids, so everyone was happy. We continued on our merry way. The walk through the jungle continued to yield riches. One was the sight of burial plots in the jungle; if you look closely (try blowing up the picture) you can see this one amongst the trees and underbrush. This was as think as anything we had seen in the Amazon. Again, we are in the tropics, relatively close to the equator. Iquitos in Peru may be closer to the equator, but it can't be rainier, stickier, or hotter. All of this breeds the underbrush. We finished the day with a full meal, topped by the elephant ear fish. The picture does not look as spectacular as it was. We ate at an open air restaurant, back in the towns, away from the jungle. Yet where we ate was recently jungle also; there has to be a place to put all the people who live in Viet Nam. We learned that ~20 million people live today in the Mekong.
This final picture is of us on a smaller boat on a Mekong tributary. The happy couple.
I've spoken a bit about teaching here, but I want to do some more. We are finished with two and a half weeks, 2/3 of the way.
They are, as we already said, young, learning English and business simultaneously. It's hard to say which is more challenging.
Jeanna was uncertain what she would do prior to arriving, as well as the first few days. She has now moved into a pattern of tutoring small groups, both English students (first and second year) as well as my business students. When she finishes with her second set she moves into my class for our final hour of class each day.
They want to learn, yet it is a slow process. We are simultaneously teaching HRM and English. Teaching only one is a full time job, both for the faculty and for the students. Teaching both: sacrifices are occasionally made, but, in the long run, we teach and they learn what is necessary.
And they have fun. The enclosed youtube of them celebrating at Vietnamese Women's Day is part of this. Their dancing was between classes, half rehearsed, everyone having fun. I have pictures of campus, including the entrance, campus model (about 5 years into the future, with the entrance at the bottom center), the modern library, still needing books, and the building in which I teach, quite airy to capture as much wind as possible and cool the place down. Of interest to note in terms of the model: there was nothing here about 3 years ago except jungle. Some fierce fighting took place here 40-50 years ago in hot, awful conditions. It remained that way for years, until Becamex, a major government corporation, decided that it needed education to move its company forward. Thus became Eastern International University.
Finally there is a cute little video of Loi, one of the main administrators and a great guy, showing us his new lecture hall seating. That's Jeanna in the background producing. About 500 automatic seats there, the latest in modern equipment, scheduled to open in the fall.
And I returned their first set of exams today. They did well. I was pleased. They have presentations in a week; we'll look forward to that.
This has been quite a week, and I haven't written for a while. Will make up for that in the next 48 hours, probably going backwards, starting with today's adventures.
But first, let me say that this has been really incredible. Everyone has treated us wonderfully. Students are great (first exam is tomorrow, a short quiz to let us get a feel for each other), faculty and administration helpful, and we are loving the people. It is easy to see why no one (the Chinese, the French, the US) has wanted to leave. But that is a political story for later.
Today, Sunday: one of the faculty members, Kim, picked us up at 9:30 and she and her fiancee took us out for >1/2 a day. We climbed to the top of a pagoda, looking out over the temple with the Buddha on top. Quite impressive. They were praying as we were there, so we didn't go in. Pictures show both the pagoda and the temple (click to enlarge the Buddha to get the full majesty of the presence). It was already quite hot, feeling like 95! And inside the pagoda, not looking to souvenir shop, we found a wonderful singing bowl and an exquisite wooden music maker, both made by hand locally. Souvenirs are often best when not searched for. Next stop: the university experimental bamboo growing research area. Very interesting! Best picture to show everyone is not where the bamboo is growing, but bamboo on a truck on the main road. BTW, the drive to the bamboo area was on a small road to Cambodia, only ~200 km away. The final part of the day was lunch. Son drove us ~10-20 km on a dirt road, to a place that even Kim had not been to. It is a strict one-lane road, more narrow than the forest service timber roads in our NW mountains. There are no turnouts, so it can get tricky. They had asked us what we would eat; my standard is that as long as it is not still alive, and I know it is clean, I will try it. So we started. First, we made wonderful spring rolls, with rice paper unlike anything we have had home. The piece de resistance of these was the tiny shrimp, full size, unpeeled, in a bed of onions. This was along with greens and a vegetable that we could not identify, dipping all into a fish sauce.
The grilled rat came next. Quite spicy, and incredibly tender meat. The picture is its underside. Yes, they are bred for food, so have not been eating what Portland rats might eat. We were told to not eat the liver; I was curious, but have learned to respect my hosts, so.....
We thought we were done. But.........the eel soup was next. WOW! We had had eel many times, and again only a few nights previous. But this was as tender as could be. And tasty. We were already stuffed, so could not finish. Why was the food so good? It was all local, all essentially at a family's home. There were probably 75-100 motor bikes there; we were the only non Asians. Everyone smiled, some asked us to take their picture. No one expected that the Americans could not eat local food, so we got their traditional Sunday best. And we ate right on the banks of the Saigon River, no more than 10 feet from the water. We ate with all the local people. It is why we travel.
One of the top ten meal experiences for me. Ever.
We grew up in New York. For 25 or so years we thought we knew how to drive, how to cross streets. Don't cut off a cab driver, run whenever you can, be in as much of a hurry as anyone else. And by all means, when you're driving, stop at most red lights, stay off the sidewalks and don't drive the wrong way.
Then we moved to the Northwest. In Seattle they gave out tickets for jaywalking, whether there were cars around or not. Cars waited patiently for people crossing the street, no matter how much it backed up traffic. How bizarre. They called it civilized, lauding everyone's behavior. Portland was no better. I wanted my NY license plates back, so people knew what to expect of me.
What are the rules in Viet Nam? Quite simple:
1. Bigger is better. The larger vehicle always has the right of way.
a. People have the right of way over vehicles. Apparently it is bad karma to hit pedestrians, so that doesn't happen. People are watched as they cross, but never hit. And no one blows their horn at pedestrians.
2. Except in the rare case of a traffic light, don't stop. Even that's not always the case. Don't stop applies to pedestrians as well as vehicles.
3. Join the party. Regardless of how many motorbikes or people, continue into the intersection or circle. The Viet Nam dept of transportation built the road for you, so use it. Use it now!
4. Motorbikes use the right side of the road, autos the left. Turn right from the left side. Not a problem. The only vehicles in the right are bikes (smaller; see rule #1), so they give way.
5. Blow your horn to let others know where you are and what you might do. As a New Yorker, I am particularly fond of this one. Portland drivers are much too polite.
6. Are you set to enter a road, yet need to go the other way on a one way street? No problem. Either
a. drive the wrong way on the street, knowing that no one will get in your way (see this at the 22 second mark in the enclosed video), or
b. drive on the sidewalk.
7. Crossing streets:
a. wait for a slight opening. Any opening will do. Waiting for a large opening may take 3 days.
b. walk at a slow measured pace. You may want to look at the traffic, but that is irrelevant. They will look for you.
c. do not run. Running will surprise drivers, who can no longer predict where you will be.
d. do not walk backwards. This is the worst thing you can do, because they have already planned how to cross behind you, missing you by six inches.
e. do not stop. This is not as bad as walking backwards, but still frowned upon.
f. remember: we're not in Kansas any more, so cars and bikes will not stop!
This is a much smoother traffic flow than in America. If cars had to stop whenever people crossed the street, no one would ever get anywhere.
Hopefully this gives some idea of the street game here. In case you need more, Jeanna took a video just for you, from a circle opposite the market in Ho Chi Minh City. Note how all the rules are in play; traffic blends, a bike goes the wrong way, and during the final 30 seconds you can see how to cross the street. I'd love to bottle it and bring it to Portland.
So how did we get to the center of the circle? We waited for a little old lady. We got on each side of her, staring at her, ignoring traffic, and doing exactly as she did. We crossed, thanked her, and she smiled at us. Yes, a little old lady did her good deed for the day, walking two hapless Americans across the street!
This is just a short one. We are in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, which is absolutely amazing. Will write more later.
However..........the skies just opened up. Jeanna and I took a video from the balcony of our room. When you hear a gasp it was when a gust of wind came up to us. Enjoy!
And as soon as the rain stops, it immediately becomes hot and muggy.
One more thing about time and the modern world. Fabio is housesitting for us. Fabio is a post-doctoral student from Italy; one of our faculty members met him when she recently taught in Italy. We skyped Fabio yesterday. He needs three clocks: one for where he is in Portland, one for his family in Italy (nine hours time difference for him), and one for us in Viet Nam, ten hours the other way. So we are only five hours away from Italy. Go figure.
I am reminded of the beginning of Camus, The Stranger: "Mother died today. Or yesterday, maybe." So now I am sitting in Saigon, 6:00 AM Saturday, watching last night's baseball game. Today or yesterday?
We are watching the Vice Presidential debate, starting at 8 00 AM Friday. In Portland you are watching it at 6:00 PM, Thursday.
Today's 4 baseball games began at midnight. Actually they are not today's games; they were yesterday's. If they happened yesterday, shouldn't I already know who won?
I watch a sports talk show called Mike and Mike in the morning. I saw Thursday morning's show on Wednesday night, while Mike and Mike were in bed, preparing for the next show.
What time is it? What day is it?
My class begins at 12:30. Every day. When do the students arrive? When I walk into the room at 11:45 half of them are there. By 12:15 they are all there. Do they know what time it is?
I take a break and ask them to return in ten minutes. At PSU I would be happy to have them back within 15 minutes. Here? They're all back within 7.
What time is it?
Class ends. At PSU they start packing up 5-10 minutes before class ends. Here? I can teach as late as I want, and they are happy to soak things up. They are in no hurry to leave. It's called respect; it's called being a bit more relaxed about time.
However: If the bus is scheduled to pick us up at 7:00, we need to be there by 6:50. Because by 7:00 it might have left.
Time is a funny thing. We time travel to get here, and we will arrive in PDX a few hours before we leave China next month. We in America are in a hurry to get places, and things begin when they begin. Here: it's more relaxed, but on time is often 5 minutes early. Except when it isn't.
It's all called culture. We are who we are, and so are you.
My, did the skies open up yesterday morning. They picked us up for the 20 minute drive to the university; it was clear. Rain started, got harder, and by the time we got there it was some of the most incredible rain we've ever seen. It just opened up. It doesn't do that in the NW. Our driver let us off at an overpass so we stayed dry, but wow. And then when we got inside we just listened and watched. You'd think we had never seen rain before.
And the Vietnamese coffee. Just wonderful. We collect types of coffee from around the world, so last night we got the coffee pot and the sweetened condensed milk. We had found the combination in Portland at Vietnamese restaurants, but it is different here where it was born. It's similar to espresso, greek coffee, and other ethnic coffees. It's local, different, and delicious. The smell is wonderful.
But today is about the students.
We had been told that they were quite good. And we remembered the students in Suzhou in 2005. But we know to never know what to expect, to always be prepared.
Class began at 12:30, so of course I got in around 11:45 to prepare. Of course 1/3 of them were already there! I brought up the syllabus on the projector, and as soon as my name appeared, they applauded! I hadn't done anything, and received accolades.
I am the expert, the Professor, from America.
By the time we started, the joking began and they started working. After an hour I needed a break (will explain why later). I asked them to promise to return in ten minutes; they were back within seven. Can I bottle that and bring that to my American students?
We did a case that required group work (for those readers who are former PSU HRM students, we used a revision of High Growth Industries). As we approached 2:30 I told them that as they finished Jeanna and I would walk around the room and take a look at their work. We would review their work and tell them that they could go home. We did this with one group after another, and no one left the room! Most waited for us to depart ~15 minutes later. Again--in America?
So the drawbacks, and the struggles:
1. Most are 20 years old, with no work experience. Not the typical PSU student, ~30 years old, juggling a family and two part time jobs.
2. Their English language abilities are developing ever so slowly. Jeanna is producing a business jargon glossary. It will be interesting to see what their bios look like when I receive them on Friday.
3. They speak so QUIETLY! I have to repeat everything they say, and it is difficult for me to understand them. That explains why I needed a break after an hour, while at PSU students typically have to drag a break out of me.
We Americans have a real responsibility here. The American professor is the expert; it's not about Alan or Jean, it's about the pedigree and location. The Vietnamese look to develop their society; our job is to help them achieve what they desire.
And this will make us better teachers at home.
This afternoon they make presentations based on what they did at the end of the day yesterday. Their profs are also interested in seeing what they will do. We'll see!
And Jeanna went in at 7:30. She begins her work teaching English, tutoring the students.