Home > Creativity, education, family, leadership > Making the Invisible Visible: Understanding Leadership Contributions of Asian Minorities in the Workplace

Making the Invisible Visible: Understanding Leadership Contributions of Asian Minorities in the Workplace


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Image by Ed Gaillard via Flickr

This small quiet book on leadership deserves to become visible so that its message of quiet leadership can be absorbed into our business and political organizations worldwide.

Who are the invisible leaders? How do we make them visible?

Back up for a moment: SHOULD we MAKE them visible, or is our understanding of leadership in the Western mode, with the “Individual as Hero”, not all there is to the story?

The authors tackle the problems and opportunities of global leadership from an angle that would be seen as nontraditional by Western leaders but which addresses the reality of leadership in daily life as experienced by millions of people around the world.

Coming from a Western in military background, I’ve grown up in a leadership culture that prizes individual heroic approaches to direct action leadership. I’ve never felt like that reflected everything that needs to be said about leadership and that’s the central message of this powerful book.

Thatchenkery and Sugiyama conducted a multi-year study to examine what they call the invisible leadership style that they experienced as members of various Asian communities. What they call invisible leadership can be thought of as a cultural worldview built on the ideas that showmanship is the opposite of leadership, that what matters is teamwork and results in long time horizons that favor growth and development from the inside of the organization and that performance is examined and valued on the basis of what’s good for the team. Invisible leaders get the job done and trust that the results will speak for themselves. They value team performance, and dont expect leaders to be constantly self-promoting and trumpeting from the front.

The authors proceed to explore their sense of this phenomenon by conducting a thoroughly grounded research effort that incorporates quantitative and qualitative data and analysis using surveys, focus groups, interviews and case studies to develop their argument. It is a model of scholarly work that carefully identifies assumptions, limitations and constraints while pointing to areas of consensus and opportunities to apply their insights in the last chapter.

They’ve incorporated scholarship on the impact of culture, motivation theory, multiple models of leadership and globalization in their efforts. They examine the impacts of leadership style and philosophy on promotions, training, recognition and reward systems and considered how invisible leadership is affected by current management practices in developing metrics, management practices and counseling programs.

They carefully examined the very notion of the utility of categorizing leadership under the broad concept of “Asian”, which on the surface seems like it could be useful but which masks the very real richness and diversity that can be found in various communities of practice and social groups populated by people from India, China, Japan, Thailand, Korea etc who are living and working in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada and whose generational demographics and further complexity to the rich mélange that is their personal experience.

The study takes a cross-section of all of these personal demographic factors and adds a further dimension based on work factors like public versus private versus nonprofit institutions. No simple leadership model can do justice to such a complex sociological mixture, despite the loud proclamations of best-selling leadership book titles, and the promises of quick fix, simple formula leadership solutions. The authors findings resonate with Heifetz’s “Leadership Without Easy Answers “, and Deming’s advice to “eliminate slogans”.

The book begins what should be a long and continuing conversation to understand the real-life complexities of modern organizations and to find ways to unleash the power and quality of all our people. It suggests that organizations can begin to apply the insights of invisible leadership by asking the right questions, considering organizational policies about visible leadership, and the payoffs of supporting invisible leaders from both pragmatic and philosophical perspectives.

They carefully examine and debunk three common mental models that have plagued Asians in the United States, the UK and Canada. Asians have been variously seen as a model minority that has supposedly “made it” and shown the way for other ethnicities; as a “middle minority” without the social problems inherent in newly emerging groups but who are not quite yet co-equal with the majority and the experience of Asians as a group that is forever foreign. According to the study, these mental models are broadly perceived by Asians to affect them personally and professionally and get in the way of Asians being seen as individuals with rich personal narratives and unique circumstances.

The study examines the realities of glass ceilings in professional promotion patterns in a broad spectrum of typical organizations, relying on insights from personal interviews and government statistics to make the case. It avoids simplistic formulations and superficial conclusions and does a fantastic job of providing a rich background of context that suggests many avenues of research needed in the future.

The authors suggest that organizing around affinity groups rather than simple ethnic and social groupings can add real value to organizational dynamics. Considering the impacts of quiet leadership at all levels of the organization: strategic, operational and tactical can have powerful implications for policy and vision. They recommend organizations consider breaking with tradition of hiring outside leaders and rather concentrate more on growing their own from the inside as a way to acknowledge the power of tacit, long-term values based growth.

The authors don’t recommend a simple exchange of philosophies (“either-or”) but rather suggest that broader integration of multiple modes and perspectives on leadership will add value and robustness to organizational DNA.

I give this fine book my highest personal and professional recommendation, because it resonates for me on a personal and a professional level. It describes a style and philosophy of leadership that has gotten little to no attention in the scholarly or popular press and which I have witnessed to be enduringly effective. It treats a serious subject seriously and respects the broad diversity of opinion and scholarship that has been conducted in this area and yet finds many points of contention and new sources of information and inspiration. It’s offered in the spirit of scholarship and understanding and suggests new ways in which our global communities and people can be respected and make progress together.

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