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Krisana's Story

Since last year’s publication of The Five Literacies of Global Leadership I am often asked for examples of leaders who practice the five literacies.

I confess to treating such requests with disinterest, even disdain. In truth there is probably an element of five literacies leadership in each and every human being. But these interrogative inquiries are most often asked, or so it seems, by people working within organizations. Setting apart genuine curiosity, which I admire, there seem to be two motives underpinning these queries:

• Egotists (often very senior executives) need to be able to assert they already practice five literacies leadership, thereby eliminating the need for any further personal development. This lends further legitimacy to their claim to be leaders. They have already reached the pinnacle of power and influence others still seek. They have climbed the corporate ladder of success and now sit astride the business like feudal barons.

• Sceptics (especially human resource professionals) have more modest, yet defensive goals. They are keen to prove that five literacies leadership is just another instance in a long lineage of developmental models having application in organizational life. This logic allows them to rank it alongside other theories (like situational leadership or transformational leadership, for example) many of which are highly contentious. By default this bolsters confidence in the model they currently espouse. To do a u-turn might lead to loss of professional credibility – their worst nightmare.

Both types of interrogation fail to appreciate the world of five literacies leaders:

  • Five literacies leadership is not just a theory or a model. It is an integral praxis. A philosophy of 'being'.
  • Five literacies leadership is not a tool, a method, or a system so it cannot be learned or implemented in the manner of say, 6-Sigma, for example. On the contrary, people ‘awaken’ to five literacies leadership. It requires a different kind of learning.
  • Five literacies leadership is not mutually exclusive or in competition with other (so-called) leadership models. In the absence of a higher order purpose, these tend to focus on managing people. But five literacies leadership is not about managing – or even performance per se. It is about intentions. Particularly the intention of purposeful collaboration to create better futures, where wealth, health and well-being are shared equitably.

For these reasons five literacies practitioners are more enlightened, more conscious of the good they can and should do in the world, than the rest of us, who still seem hell bent on using the guise and trappings of orthodox leadership to acquire greater influence, wealth or power.

Another problem is that, thus far, there are so few examples of five literacies leaders in corporate life. There are two reasons I’ve been able to identify:

  1. In the past we conceived of corporations as vehicles for creating wealth – a legitimate and honorable purpose given that such wealth then flows through to the community as a whole. A CEO’s focus had to be on management and results. We conveniently adopted the label of ‘leadership’ to illustrate this focus, to the extent that it excluded most other factors. Today, however, we demand much more than just profits. Of course we want corporations to be profitable, but not at any cost. We now stipulate adherence to new rules concerning stakeholders, the community and the environment. In other words we expect businesses to be good corporate citizens or, at the very least, do no damage to people or to the environment. This is a relatively new role for the business corporation. It remains a topic of hot debate. Besides, business is still learning what being a good corporate citizen actually means. It will take a while before a critical mass of five literacies leaders emerges in this context.
  2. Five literacies leadership is not leadership as traditionally defined within organizations. Just because your CEO is perceived to be 'the leader' does not make him or her afive literacies practitioner. Whereas 'conventional' notions of leadership are founded on some evidence of applied ego (as in charisma, presence, authority or high degrees of self-esteem) five literacies leaders invariably transcend ego. In so doing they liberate a higher order, transpersonal impulse that is, as yet, uncommon. It is also more disruptive of the status quo, of course, which tends to be an issue for many business enterprises in spite of their avowed understanding, and need for, innovation.

Five literacies leadership, I contend, is still a rare phenomenon simply because it is the first sign of an evolutionary step in the emergence of a new, innate, universal morality. What we are seeing, and labeling five literacies leadership for want of a more appropriate term, is a praxis that transcends old orthodoxies while combining a spiritual awakening and cognition of new possibilities with a deeply felt, personal, responsibility that embraces all life.

Of course there are numbers of people all around the world practicing five literacies leadership. There would have been no book called The Five Literacies without people to work with or examples to draw upon. Some of these are household names. Some are poor while others have more than their share of fame and fortune. But it is mostly ordinary people doing extraordinary things that I most admire. These are the people from whom I draw inspiration. They are genuinely authentic leaders.

One such person is KrisanaKrisintu, recognized just last week by Reader’s Digest as their Asian of the Year for 2008. Krisana’s name is not on everyone’s lips. She is not particularly well known even in her home country of Thailand. But her achievements resonate throughout Asia and Africa.

Krisana is a 55-year-old pharmacist, known for her courage and tireless activities in creating affordable generic drugs to help victims of HIV/Aids and malaria in some of the poorest countries in the world. She was selected by the editors of Reader’s Digest as someone who best embodies the contemporary expression of Asia’s values and traditions.

Incidentally that, too, implies a lot about the nature of five literacies leadership which I intend exploring in future postings.

But to continue with Krisana’s story…

In 1979, Krisana was appointed head of the newly created Research and Development Institute at the publicly owned Government Pharmaceutical Organization in Thailand. Using the resources at her disposal Krisana set to work developing inexpensive drugs for diseases ranging from hypertension to diabetes. These generic medicines could be produced cheaply because they didn’t involve expensive basic research although they used the same key ingredients as those in proprietary products first manufactured by Western multinationals.

When Aids spread quickly through Thailand in 1992, Krisana decided to produce generic versions of the more commonly available antiretrovirals (ARVs) being used in the West to control the disease. She was especially interested in zidovudine, a drug that reduced the chances of pregnant HIV-positive women passing the virus to their children. Zidovudine was originally developed to combat cancer and is highly toxic. Krisana immediately ran into opposition from her peers and colleagues who refused to work with her on the project.

Ignoring their advice she worked alone. Wearing a mask, goggles and gloves she analysed drugs and experimented with a variety of formulations. After six months working round-the-clock she produced her first generic zidovudine capsules at one-fifth the cost of the branded original. This was the developing world’s first generic ARV. The combination pill had to be taken twice a day instead of the usual six-pills-a-day regimen. The drug was also 18 times cheaper. As a result, more than three quarters of the 100,000 people being treated for HIV/Aids in Thailand now take Krisana’s ‘three-in-one’ cocktail.

Since then Krisana has taken her knowledge and expertise to other countries, including the Congo, Tanzania, Mali, Burma, Burundi, Kenya and Aceh, creating more drugs, training hospital staff and organizing the refurbishment of moribund factories to manufacture her drugs.

Krisana’s indomitable efforts are helping to create a region free of diseases that were ravaging the population. Her story is a wonderful example of five literacies leadership.


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