As some of you know, I tend to prefer academic texts, with charts and graphs, footnotes, and typologies … I am not much for stories, except as short illustrations to help me understand and learn a term, a concept, or a model. This is what I am used to reading and enjoying.
Imagine my surprise when I found myself engaged in “Lessons From China” by Beau Sides, a fascinating tale of a “stranger in a strange land”. The heroine, Jan, is a young, very American woman, venturing to China for a teaching position in a somewhat remote area. Her journey is a consistent flow of discovery, as she learns how to navigate, negotiate, and eventually thrive in a foreign land. The tale is told in direct and clear narrative, so we learn as she learns, with the benefit of knowing her inside thoughts as well as her outside actions.
Some of her experiences are humorous, others are slightly unsettling, and a few made me squirm in my seat. I found myself trying to imagine how I might react to some of the physical and psychological challenges Jan encountered, which was extremely valuable. I am not a seasoned traveler, although I have been to several foreign countries. I like my routines, my comfort, and my familiarity with my environment.
Some important lessons I gleaned from this valuable little book …
Real growth comes when you are the minority …
Most of us spend most of our lives with others who are very much like us, in surroundings that are known and comfortable. When we venture forth, we are usually doing so within the context of our larger culture, which insures that much remains familiar, even as we grow and change. Of course change is relative, as I remember how utterly out of my comfort zone I felt when I traveled a short distance to live in a larger small town to attend college. We always start where we are.
Stepping off a plane into a world where you do not understand the language or customs, or even look like everyone else is a real opportunity … if you take advantage of it and approach the new and unknown with an open mind and a seeking heart.
Culture teaches us to pay attention and give respect …
“Culture eats strategy for lunch”, as Peter Drucker apparently said. Culture also eats our ingrained assumptions about proper and improper, right and wrong, good and bad, and a host of other more specific thinking that, until challenged, is simply how we think the world works.
Those who come from an individualistic culture, such as Jan and I, value rugged individualism, demand our privacy and space, and generally think in terms of relying ourselves to solve our problems and make our way. Only when we see how a more communal culture works, in terms of personal, professional, organizational, and societal behavior, do we start to realize that maybe other ways of getting along exist and are available to us.
Jan learned the first of many lessons about this when she tried to negotiate a simple purchase herself, rather than accept help from her host.
Leadership lessons come from growth …
This is not a leadership book, but like all well-written and useful books, it has leadership lessons to teach us, if we just pay attention. Jan marvels at the differences that she can easily see in the Chinese cultures (note: more than one, just like the United States) she encounters during her travels and her tenure in China. She allows herself to experience change and to release her hold on self-sufficiency enough to accept and even ask for help when appropriate. She learns to learn that different is not right or wrong in itself.
For leaders, the lessons should be clear:
Leaders look, listen, and learn
Leaders are not afraid to change
Leaders ask for help when they need help
Leaders value and respect differences
Some of the books I review are focused sharply on business strategy or corporate leadership behavior. This one is different and that difference creates real value in an easily-digested form. Buy a copy of “Lessons From China”. You will not regret doing so and you might just get an itch to hit the open road or fly the friendly skies.
When next I travel to another land or even to visit a new organization, I will revisit this travelogue and try to reabsorb the lessons, which work well whether you are on your way to China or just across town.
Putting on my traveling clothes in the Heartland ….
About the Author
Beau Sides is the founder and president of Global Partners in Life, a non-profit organization that helps orphaned children, special needs orphans, and disadvantaged youth with educational, humanitarian and medical needs in China. He is also the author of Lessons from China (April 2014), a fictional story of a young woman who moves to China to teach English, only to discover that she has some lessons of her own to learn. Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Follow him on Twitter @beausides and visit his website – beausides.com.