October 30, 2017

The King and his empathy for the country

I would like to dedicate this article as my tribute to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, our beloved monarch who devoted his whole life to developing Thailand. Certainly there is not enough room to write about how grateful I am and how much I love the King, who was like a father to us all for 70 years, but as we conclude a year of mourning his loss, I want to touch once more on his love and dedication.

One thing I’m certain of is that the things the late King did, which proved to be such a great success, arose from his deep understanding of his people. King Bhumibol travelled throughout this land — no matter how remote or hard to reach some places were, he wanted to learn about the problems of each area for himself. This reflected his genuine belief that the only way, and possibly the best way, to learn about his country and his people was to truly empathise with them.

Empathy refers to our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, to see what they see and to feel what they feel. In other words, to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Yet, none of us can fully experience things the way someone else does, but we can attempt to get as close as possible, and we do this by putting aside our own biased ideas and choosing to understand the ideas, thoughts and needs of others instead.

Empathy is a critical trait for leadership. We have come to understand in recent times that it is the most important step in design thinking as well as being the starting point for innovation.

King Bhumibol’s empathy for his people started early in his reign. ACM Kamthon Sindhvananda, a former privy councillor, wrote that King Bhumibol once remarked that he had no achievements in the first two years of his reign because he did not know what people wanted. This shows how seriously he took the work and duties of kingship, and also how essential he felt it was to truly know about the needs of his people.

Henceforth, King Bhumibol developed the principle of “Understanding, Reaching Out and Development”, which he has applied in all of his work throughout his seven-decade reign. The principle suggests that before we do anything, we must first understand what needs to be done and why.

In the case of King Bhumibol, understanding covered the geography, the demography as well as the problems that each area was experiencing. Most importantly, in the process of understanding, we need to make the other party understand us as well, since understanding is two-way communication.

The same goes for “reaching out”. Once we have learned about people’s problems, we must reach out to them in order to put our solutions for them into practice. According to the principle, to reach out is to communicate with the other party and promote participation. The focus here is on creating mutual understanding and encouraging the other party to take part in the process as much as possible.

As for the last concept of “development”, it can be executed effectively if we really understand and reach out to other people. Development was at the heart of King Bhumibol’s work as he worked so hard and sacrificed so much to raise the quality of life of his people.

Dr Sumet Tantivejkul, secretary-general of the Chaipattana Foundation and a former secretary-general of the Office of the Royal Development Projects Board, once clarified the idea behind King Bhumibol’s development work as “exploding from the inside”. His means strengthening people in a community to be ready for development, rather than bringing development to them when they are not ready for it. In recognition of this, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2006 presented the first-ever Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award to King Bhumibol for his extraordinary contributions.

Before finishing this article, I would like to share another story that speaks volumes about the late King’s belief in empathy. It was told by Thanphuying Putrie Viravaidya, deputy principal private secretary to King Bhumibol. She recalled that there was a Golden Place shop (founded by King Bhumibol to sell products from the Royal Projects) near Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin. The King wanted to try working in the shop but he was afraid he would cause a stir, so he went there one day in 2002 just before it was about to close, when there would not be too many customers.

King Bhumibol sat at the cashier’s counter and when one of the customers went up to pay, slightly shocked, she sputtered, “What are you doing here?” The King simply smiled and said, “This is my shop. Why can’t I work here?”

In our hearts forever and always.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej