The Way Thais Lead: A Book Review

As a great many expatriates can attest, there is no shortage of cultural differences when it comes to comparing leadership styles in Thailand with what foreign managers and employees might be used to back home. A lot of conversations tend to focus on the benefits and hindrances of these cultural differences – usually more the latter than the former. However, the more interesting question for expatriates choosing to work in Thailand is how to work within that framework in order to achieve a desired outcome. It’s the reason I picked up ‘The Way Thais Lead: Face as Social Capital‘. But it’s not the reason the book was written. Here’s my review of the book and why I still think it’s one of those books that every manager new to the country should pick up.

Written by Larry S. Persons and published by Silkworm Books, The Way Thais Lead looks at how Thai leaders use face as a currency, as capital that can be invested and yield returns. Persons sets out to showcase not only management within Thai organizations, but also analyses the relationships that are essential to it. It makes it easy to follow how individuals leverage these advantages to further their careers and positions. Not limited to a description of the status quo, the book also delves into how the author envisions a better form of leadership in a Thai context. Published in 2016 it’s one of the most recent publications on leadership in Thai society.

Persons is in a good position to write this book after having published a Phd thesis on the same topic. Having grown up in Thailand and with more than 20 years of working experience in the country he is a very well embedded researcher. In addition to reviewing existing literature, he draws on a significant number of anecdotes and leverages his own connections to incorporate input from parts of Thai society that are usually not very accessible to foreign observers.

The Way Thais Lead describes the different dimensions of what many foreigners would commonly lump together as ‘face’ within Thai culture. Persons explains the differences between the different components that make up ‘face’ and goes over their individual importance.

In my own experience, a great many English-speaking Thais understand the English term ‘face’ and its use in Thailand. However, once you address the topic with the actual Thai terms that make up the different parts of the overall concept, you are able to gain a whole different level of understanding. While this part of the book might appear as very theoretical, it does provide you with the vocabulary to discuss these issues in a more precise manner.

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The author showcases some of those factors in personal anecdotes that include a district police chief meeting with community leaders as well as the dynamics of the situation change once a local politician shows up. Additional real life examples would have made the book more accessible, but the main focus of the first part is on laying the theoretical groundwork for the rest of the book. While I didn’t find it an easy read, the author’s intention to explain rather than to evaluate struck a positive note with me.

Persons explains why a person of high standing might rather pay for a THB 5,000 dinner rather than agree to paying a THB 200 fine. It’s these kind of examples and the look at what’s going below the surface that benefit non-Thai readers by helping them understand some events unfolding in a way that doesn’t necessarily make sense in their own social context.

The most valuable parts for me in the book was the exploration of the concept of bunkhun (บุญคุณ). One of the sources cited in the book, Suntaree Komin, explains bunkhun as”indebted goodness”. It’s the provision of a favor that creates a social obligation. Sometimes these favors are provided out of good will, otherwise with a calculating mind due the reciprocity these favors mandate.

In my eyes, the creation of nee bunkhun (หนี้บุญคุณ) – debts of gratitude – is a concept that in its seriousness and importance are often unknown to Western expatriates in the country. That’s especially concerning because it’s such an important part of the social fabric in the country influencing anything from politics to multi-level marketing campaigns. Persons showcases how the bunkhun shapes Thai hierarchies and interactions and also how important it is to be aware of these peculiarities:

As you navigate relationships in Thai society, always remember: to accept a considerable act of generosity is to relinquish power to a patron. From that point on, you must give face to that benefactor on a regular basis and you must never disappoint him. It is as though you have received a substantial loan and you’ve chosen to live in a state of indebtedness.

What might be necessitated due to its academic roots is the inclusion of more generally applicable concepts that aren’t unique to Thai society. That fame on social media is easy-come, easy-go isn’t a Thailand-specific phenomena for example. Personally I would like to have seen a stronger focus on factors that are more unique to Thailand.

The author doesn’t hesitate to point out short comings of Thai leadership in contemporary society, including criticism of ‘bogus propaganda’, the ‘toxicity of politics on the national stage’ and the ‘increasingly rare’ existence of ‘accumulated goodness’. While I can see where he’s coming from, in my eyes these statements sound a bit too close to ‘politics are dirty’ and ‘things used to be better’, two statements I personally would consider problematic.

Persons leverages his criticism to make an appeal and offer suggestions on how to improve leadership in Thai society. This certainly has a good ring to it. For this he doesn’t turn to more ‘Western’ concepts but rather looks at how traditional leadership methods include more ethical options that have been underutilized in the past. He makes a strong argument of how potential future leaders can benefit from an increased adherence to higher moral standards. Despite the inherent optimism I think the provided suggestions are laudable and offer some actionable suggestions.

The book isn’t marketed as a how-to guide for management in Thailand and it’s not what you should expect when you pick it up. It is however a look into the usually more hidden realms of leadership and power in politics, government positions and Thai institutions where foreigners usually gain little insight. The book illustrates well the importance of relationships and how Thais often perceive them. Several of those items will provide actionable insights for managers looking to understand the unspoken parts of work and business relationships in the country.

I found the book to be a very eloquent, educational insight into leadership culture and other hierarchical relationships in the country. The ability to discuss leadership and power dynamics with Thai friends in a more well-informed manner already made ‘The Way Thais Lead’ a worthwhile read for me. What truly stands out though is the explanation of unwritten, often even unspoken, rules that govern many parts of Thai society.

The Way Thais Lead is available as hard copy on the Silkworm Books website. The publisher was so kind as to provide me with a free electronic review copy of the book before I actually went out and bought it as ebook on Amazon for $22.99 myself.

2 comments
  1. I expect it is but from your description it doesn’t sound a lot different than the hierarchical structure of the Italian mafia families as they existed in the USA. Definitely have patrons which provide opportunities for you then you owe them from that point on. Smart leaders used this capital carefully to build loyalty and stupid ones got betrayed eventually. This sound familiar?

    1. I think a great many relationship-based societies will work in similar ways – by incurring or settling relationship debts. The difference of course lies in the consequences of defaulting on said debt. In Thailand it’s very detrimental to your career and social standing, but you can afford to default. It just comes at a price. On the other hand the relationship is a lot more mutual. Patriarchy is not a one-way system.

      An alternative example in the US rather than the Italian mafia would be a presidential campaign team. Your success and failure is tied to the leader you follow and your support of that leader will also result in you receiving support back in the future. There is a lot of relational debt incurred by acceptance of volunteer work and campaign donations. These donors will often expect returns.

      In Thailand it often is the other way round, and it puts a lot of pressure on direct reports. Let’s say a politician wants to run a campaign and hands out money to local leaders in order to gather their support. If they accept it, they are responsible for rallying their own community to vote for them. They would then go on and distribute benefits to their community. If they fail to rally their community for that politician, it will reflect badly on the leaders, and they’ll suffer the consequences. The members of their communities know that. In order to not betray their local leaders, they will vote for the politician that the leader suggests – not because they themselves suffer consequences, but because their leaders would.

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