Sanyin Siang: Leadership is strongly about creating the right culture

Posted: August 17, 2012 by jennroig in Articles, English, Interviews
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Sanyin Siang

(This is the unedited English version of the interview to Sanyin Siang, originally published by AmericaEconomia on 13 August 2012)

Sanyin Siang is the executive director of the Coach K Center for Leadership & Ethics of Duke University in North Carolina. Among its goals, the center aims to teach Fuqua’s students about the necessary qualities and skills of leadership. In order to do so, it effectively resorts to relevant ethical values from sports.

A characteristic of the Center is that it takes as referent the job of the Basketball Dream Team coach Mike Krzyzewski, or Coach K. As well, Krzyzewski has coached the Duke’s male basketball team for long years.

Corporate scandals, especially those in financial institutions, have added even reasons to the scrutiny and distrust to the already criticized global financial and economic status quo. Concerns are raised over executives ethical values. Meanwhile, B-Schools play a key role in the education of executives. How does Fuqua react to these concerns?

We are now creating the type of leaders that the world need. We have seen that the world needs leaders who are collaborative, innovative, tactical, and socially minded. The greatest leaders have several characteristics, one is the knowledge of what is required to be a good leader, and this includes a skill set, but also the right culture.

Culture is such a strong element. Here we think is not only about imparting knowledge, but experiences. Having experiences as part of a culture is a strong part of the development process. At Fuqua, we believe people are part of the culture, they are active elements on the construction of a culture.

That’s why we are very careful on the selection of students. We try to select people who are collaborative, who care about the community and who are honest.

Specifically related to Coach K leadership style, it is noticeable how his role draws on leading a group of highly skilled and competitive players, who make millions of dollars. It somehow reminds the situation of some CEOs who are commanding a group of top executives very much competitive. ¿What could such CEO learn from Krzyzewski?

He understands the logic of a team and he helps the players to understand what is to be a part of a team’s identity. In the case of the national team for the olympics, they are superstar players individually. All of them have their own egos. But Coach K doesn’t attack their egos. Instead, he encourages them to bring their egos to the game, while understanding that they are playing together as a team. Team USA.

Part of having them channeling that ego to serve the team is seeing themselves as part of a bigger entity. They can see not only their own interests, but also the collective interest. Which would be the collective interests of the USA team.

One specific example of how he did that with the olympic team, is when he called General Bob Brown, member as well of the Coach K Center for Leadership & Ethics. General Brown brought alone a captain who was wounded in Irak, a military operation. He was blinded as result of that action. He is Captain Smiley.

Smiley talked in front of the national team. He told them the story of how he wanted to go back to war, even if he had been blinded, to fight for his country, because he believed in his country and the cause they were fighting for. That was a very powerful story to help the national team connecting with the identity of Team USA.

Coach K uses stories, symbols, visual imagery such as the image of the fist. Five fingers on each hand cannot be as strong by themselves as they are when the form a fist. He uses these symbols to pass to the players his point of the importance of ego plus being part of a team and the team identity.
And this is important because there are actually differences between the college team and the national team. You can penalize college players for being late, but when someone makes millions and you penalize them with 1000 dollars, they won’t care. That is why he resorts so much to cultural elements with the national team. He set standards for them. One of them was always to be on time. And they enforce that with each other.

In regards to the executives. They tend to be people with strong money ambition. So culture is relevant for them as well. In their case, an ethical performance does not have to be in conflict with profitability or money ambition. In our case, what we aim is that our students learn that success can happen on multiple dimensions. Money isn’t the only measure of success, it’s only one part of a bigger picture. That’s culture. It’s about being a team player, it’s being part of what we call societal stewardship. Someone who, as leader, thinks not only about himself, but about the organization and the best interest of the society. Because that is how he or she can have short-term benefits, mid-term benefits and long-term benefits.

There are studies, such as prof. Arieli’s research, which link creativity to dishonesty. It shows how people find hard to self regulate themselves. Is this influencing the way B-Schools approach to the role and expectations of executives, and the institutional environment and the need of external regulation?

Throughout this interview I have emphasized on the importance of culture. Part of leadership is being able to create the right culture. While we are developing our students as leaders, we aim to give them the skill set to run a business, but also the example of a good culture so they can learn and take to whatever organization they go to where they can help create that sort of culture.

Culture is what helps internal regulations. For example, in Fuqua students do not cheat because they know cheating is not allowed, but not only it’s not allowed, it’s intrinsically wrong. So because of that culture students regulate each other. If they are seeing someone who is going to cheat in class, they know how to act to hold each other accountable. And help students come back from that idea, convincing the student of not doing that, showing there are other ways. They can help each other as part of a team, by not allowing anyone cheating but helping them to pass with honesty.

So when our students know how to lead, they go into an organization and will be around people who are not honest, but with their leadership we hope they will be able to help create a culture of integrity, honesty, so when people will be under pressure, they wont resort to cheating or to bad things but they actually find a way to help each other. To channel that creativity towards solving the problem in a way that is not or doesn’t conflict with what is right.

And again Coach K sets a good example. When he selects the players for the college team, he looks at both technical abilities and their ability to be part of a team. The basketball program has a culture in which every single person is important and expected to bring their best for every single practice and game. But, because they also understand what their own personal strengths are, also understand what the strengths of the team mates are. They are able to understand that alone each player cannot do what they, as a team, can do together. That’s how coach gets them to understand the importance to bring their personal best to the game but also collaborate with other team members so the team can win.

And these are qualities that are achieved with leadership and collaboration, that we want to bring to our business students. We actually talk to them about collaborative leadership, how they as students can be strong individually, with valuable skills, but we also select them for their ability to be good team players.

That is why I always underline the importance of culture. What we saw in Wall Street and the financial crisis is there’s more shareholder values in the bottom line, and there’s a need that culture moves back towards creating a stakeholder culture. We believe strongly that in Fuqua we need to teach not only financial skills, or marketing skills, but also about leadership skills. Because leadership creates culture.

In terms of our students experiences, we select students who not only care about business but also care about the world, making the world better with their business as instrument. So our student are not only into business, but a lot of them are also interested on organization, education, energy, social impact. When they are here they also work in student clubs with goals that are focused on societal relation to business.

I dont know how other B-Schools address the issue, but that’s how we do it here at Fuqua.

In the USA, the teaching of civic topics has declined on elementary and high schools. How can the universities address this gap of knowledge and culture that young students are already bringing to B-Schools? How are B-Schools approach these topics?

It is true that in the USA elementary and high school levels are having less and less courses aimed to teach civic education and similar topics.

In response to that challenge, we need to speak more about societal stewardship, societal embeddedness. Part of that is talking about how every country is so interdependent now. What happens in the USA will affect what happens in Latin America, what happens in Europe, or Asia and Africa. As well, what happens in all these countries will influence on what happens in the USA. That is why societal stewardship, to look at the big picture, is so important.

In Fuqua we understand it, because we are an international global school. We have so many international students that this knowledge becomes part of our everyday experience.

We believe very strongly, in terms of culture, experiences and knowledge, in helping our students to see beyond their business, to look at the political, and social context.


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