by Marissa Fernando, Ph.D. and Sirichai Preudhikulpradab, Ph.D.

This article explores “leadership with heart” from the perspective of two Southeast Asian countries: the Philippines and Thailand.  Through an on-line questionnaire that employed open-ended questions, we collected insights from leaders and managers in both countries. The questions focused on two main inquiries: (1) What does “leadership with heart” mean to you?; and (2) How have you experienced “leadership with heart”?


    An analysis of the responses indicates that, while there are some differences,  in both   Filipino and Thai business culture,  leadership with heart contains three key components:  (1) Care and Concern: Malasakit and Meta; (2) Spirit of Communal Unity and Cooperation; and (3) Character and Action.

Leading with heart

      The word for “heart” in the Thai language is “jai,” and in Filipino, it is “puso.”  In both languages, these words are also used to describe the physical heart.  Furthermore, “jai “ and “puso” are closely related to other words that reflect concepts such as: spirit, spiritual center or core, soul, inner being, mind, and state of being. 

     Leadership in the Philippines features a unique blend of Confucianism, Christianity, and communal values (Corcuera, F. n.d,), while Thailand embraces Hinayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and communal concepts in its leadership practices.  There are similarities and differences between these two leadership approaches, and each has its strengths and limitations, depending upon how it is perceived and practiced in real-life situations. 

     Asians take pride in what they do and how they do what they do. The Asian style of leadership is distinctive in that it is impulsive and spontaneous and not as “objective” as that of the western world.   

Care and Concern: “Malasakit” and “Meta”

      There are many changes afoot in the economic and business landscape of the Asian region and workplace and in the demographics of its workforce. In the midst of these, Asians continue to place primary value on the quality of personal relationships with superiors and colleagues.  Because the quality of personal relationships matters most,  leading and managing with heart has a positive impact on employee motivation, satisfaction, performance, and loyalty. Successful leadership connects at the human level.

      Overall, Asian leadership is caring, though firm and disciplined; it is paternalistic and parental in approach (Low, 2012). Like a father/bread-winner, the leader looks after the family (organization/nation) and ensures or promotes its well–being. (Low, 2012). While the leader looks after the people, the people are obliged to be loyal to and obey the leader; it is a relationship of mutual exchange that strives to create win-win situations for all parties. The leader is devoted to and invests heavily in the people; and, in turn, the people follow and support the leader. (Low, 2102) 

     Care and concern means showing interest in and support for in the employee’s welfare and well-being (compensation/benefits),  which includes showing genuine interest in the subordinate’s family concerns, and providing financial and moral support. It is common that employees value leaders and managers who organize and join in celebrations with and for family members,  and go out of their way to be one with them.  A leader values his people by showing appreciation, gratitude,  and concern, and an understanding of their needs. 

     In addition, concern and care (“malasakit” in the Philippine context) inform leaders’ conduct from decision making through implementation. When top management makes a decision, middle managers ensure that the rationale behind the decision and its short- and long-term benefits are made clear and satisfactorily explained to subordinates.  From hiring to firing and in offering fair compensation and benefits packages, managers and corporate leaders are expected demonstrate compassion and empathy. 

     Although Asian leadership may be considered paternalistic and authority based, leaders consider and engage all relevant stakeholders in the process, which empowers people to make decisions or do tasks on their own. When they listen to their people and involve them in dialogue surrounding decision making and in the execution of plans, employees consider them to be leading with heart. 

     “Meta” is the Buddhist Thai word for “mercifulness”, and it characterizes leading with heart from the Thai perspective.  Employees consider their bosses to be leaders with heart when the latter are “mercifulness-minded” in the way they listen to their employees, especially when faced with difficult problems. Mercifulness-minded listening means giving employees the chance to speak out to show their pure intentions, which deepens their sense of connection to the enterprise.  Allowing employees to speak enhances their motivation to continue doing their best, because they feel deeply valued by their superiors, and makes it more likely that an appropriate solution will emerge. Employees’ sense of  being valued, appreciated, and  “heard” by corporate leaders and managers who are “mercifulness-minded” ultimately creates a long-lasting relationship and engagement.  According to a Thai saying, “There is no place better to work than with a mercifulness-minded boss.”   

     Another element  of concern and care is valuing talent and people development. Leaders with heart sincerely believe in improving the talent and skill set of their team members and encourage them to participate in programs that relate to their career aspirations and give opportunities for growth. These leaders anticipate future challenges and support and guide their people in proactively finding  a solution.  

      Leaders with heart also encourage those who are not performing well.  Rather than positioning a weakness as a negative, a leader with heart understands that under-performance presents opportunity for an employee to learn from teammates and also focuses on the areas in the which the employee performs well.  Thus, the leader with heart puts a premium on the goals and aspirations of his subordinates and helps them to steer  toward and reach loftier heights.


Spirit of communal unity and cooperation

     Collectivism is a noteworthy Asian value.  Culturally, Thailand and the Philippines place a high value on family, which naturally extends to the workplace. Corporate leaders create a team whose members look out for one another and for the best interest of the group while fostering team spirit and bonding.  In the Philippines, this is called “samahan” or “bayanihan”.  In Thailand, such characteristics reflect the virtues of the Thai way of shared living known as “namchai,” or “water of the heart.” It is a concept encompassing warmth and compassion that allows groups to make sacrifices for friends and to extend hospitality.  

     In the business context, the value of communal unity and cooperation is embodied by leaders who are driven to accomplish team goals and have a strong desire to make others feel that they are empowered every step of the way.  They consider the strengths and weaknesses of team members and find opportunities for each individual to shine by using their strengths. Collaboration and camaraderie are paramount.  

     In Thailand, employees describe a leader with heart as someone who stands by them and with them. Protecting employees from “losing face” is a priority, and requires a show of respect and sympathy no matter how difficult the situation. The leader is expected to demonstrate empathy and move toward finding solutions. This approach promotes better relationships, eases tensions, and brings about better conflict negotiation and resolutions as a team.  


Character and Action

     Leaders with heart are competent leaders with vision. They know their business and provide clear direction. They strive for continuous learning in order to attain personal mastery, and have a balanced view of challenges, people, and opportunities. However, competence, while necessary, is not sufficient.  Personal integrity, in both private and public domains, is also essential. 

     In Thailand and the Philippines, values-based leadership is held in high esteem. Leaders  with heart are also persons of character.  They mean what they say and keep promises. In Thailand, this aspect of leading with heart has a direct connection to Hinayana Buddhism’s five precepts, which promote orderly and peaceful existence in a community. The fourth precept--Sila--addresses the necessity of integrity, and lying is generally regarded as wrong.  When a leader is unable to deliver on a promise because it was insincere from the beginning, employees consider this a lack of character.  However, a leader who consistently demonstrates sincere motives quickly gains trust and understanding from employees, even if promises sometimes go unfulfilled. They likely appreciate and accept the fact that their boss sometimes must gracefully submit to external forces beyond anyone’s control, such as the effects of past karma. What matters most is sincerity and the desire to live up to intention. 

     Furthermore, leaders with heart practice transparency in regard to information and dissemination of information, are not caught up in the trappings of their position and authority, and are not afraid to admit their own mistakes. These are just some indications of a leader who serves with honesty, conviction, and direction. The Filipino term is “pananagutan”: one who serves with accountability and responsibility. 

     Asian leadership with heart is a lived experience that is values based: valuing people is central, as is personal integrity, mercifulness, positive relationships, caring, concern, and responsibility, among other essential traits. This is what Asians view as their distinctive contribution to the emerging face of leadership. While the specific dynamics of leading with heart may vary among the many Asian cultures, the primary value of “people first” is consistent and noteworthy in every Asian workplace. Leading with heart is at the heart of leadership.

PDF Version