photo unavailable Gathering Place

George Theotocatos

Sunday, June 6, 2004

Coaching future leaders
to create a better world

Anyone tempted to feel uneasy when contemplating the next generations of leaders in the Asia-Pacific region can breathe easier. My optimism is based on a remarkable experience I've had working with students in the innovative Asia Pacific Leadership Program at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

The need to understand other cultures and learn how to manage cultural diversity is particularly important for leadership development in a post-Sept. 11, constantly evolving and dangerous world. The APLP, funded by the Freeman Foundation, fills this need by developing future leaders through personal coaching as they learn leadership skills and theories in a cross-cultural setting.

I was fortunate to be part of this program in 2002 and 2003. The students came from faraway places like Bhutan, Mongolia, Indonesia, Japan, China, Tonga, Western Samoa, Nepal and Uzbekistan, as well as the United States, spending nine months at the East-West Center.

They ranged in age from 22 to 42 years old. Included were a doctor from Myanmar, business executives from China, an American Harvard graduate in the Foreign Service, a social worker from Thailand and an electronics engineer from Nepal. Most had master's degrees and some had completed their doctoral degrees.

They found that adjusting to a new culture was somewhat softened by being in Hawaii, with its multicultural society and ideal weather. One of their most valuable experiences was sharing their cultures and impressions with one another.

APLP's mission is to create a network of leaders from the United States, Asia and the Pacific who are familiar with the region and are trained to exercise leadership for the well-being of the countries and people of the region.

My role, through personal coaching, was to facilitate their self-discovery -- in effect, to help them achieve what matters most to them.

They were challenged to focus on approaches to conflict resolution within different cultures. The students were challenged to look into the future and predict the long-term impacts of their actions.

Gender often played a part in the coaching process. One young woman from Southeast Asia was moved to tears of frustration once she identified her personal values and realized they were in direct conflict with her culture. As a result of our conversations she realized that she could take what she had learned and apply it selectively in her own country to benefit her people. She came up with the idea to go back and start a home for elderly people.

Students felt safe to explore issues and talk openly about their dreams, life and plans. I was there to listen to their needs, act as their sounding board and help them discover options and solutions.

Students were encouraged to share what was already working for them. People move forward easier and faster when they acknowledge what is working rather than trying to fix what is not working. After validating their vision by discovering what was ideally right for them and what would make it more right, we explored what was not quite right yet.

This process provided a reminder for them to look at options in life from a positive perspective.

We also explored the value of celebrating small things. This concept was revolutionary to some students from Asia, where hard work and achievement are valued over personal gratification. They discovered that celebrating small things and daily accomplishments can be an energy booster.

Other topics included decision-making, managing procrastination and exploring their curiosity as a learning tool.

Based on responses students provided, it appeared that the coaching model worked well. One student wrote:

"The program has really opened my eyes to the world ... I thoroughly enjoyed the coaching session because it was the first time I have actually allotted time to sit down and have someone listen to my career aspirations, qualms and goals."

Program Manager Nicholas Barker noted that students reacted to coaching in different ways, applying lessons learned to make life changes. "In certain cases," Barker said, "the impact was dramatic to behold."

My confidence in the leadership of tomorrow extends beyond the students themselves. By helping them discover, define and ultimately achieve what matters most to them, we are helping nations do the same.

George Theotocatos is a former oil company executive, East-West Center visiting scholar and executive coach. He can be reached at


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