How to balance personal and professional integrity

Author: Louisa M Orchard

Day 4 USLS2015

This post represents the fifth in a series from the ongoing University Scholars Symposium being covered on the  ground by the Gloss’s team. Please check in regularly to keep up to date with the latest news from the symposium.

 Reminded of ha joon chang!

Hong Kong Polytechnic University – USLS2015. Following our day out in various locations around the Hong Kong area in 35 degree heat, today we were back in the welcoming air-conditioned arms of the 800 seat Jockey Auditorium. Five speakers took the stage: Chandran Nair, Founder and CEO at the Global Institute for Tomorrow; Peter Ho Secretary-General of YMCA Hong Kong; concurrently with Geraldine Cox Founder of Sunrise Villages Cambodia. In the afternoon: David James Begbie director of the Crossroads Foundation and Michelle Kim, Founder and Director of Hong Kong Generation Next Arts. In my opinion the most interesting of these were Chandran Nair and Peter Ho’s talks. Both outlined integrity as key to leadership in international development, but from very different angles Mr Nair idealizing intellectual and professional integrity and Mr. Ho idealizing personal integrity.

Chandran Nair, was a breath of fresh air after the NGO driven discourse dominant in the programming at the symposium. He provided a Think Tank’s perspective on leadership in international development. He was candid, even controversial in the communication of his opinions in a way that was not common in other talks, as speakers have tended to tow the party line of their organizations. Mr Nair strode up and down the front of the stage, with out notes, throwing provocations at the students. Following one question from a Saudi PhD student researching carbon capture he responded “do you want my honest opinion?… Give up”. The bulk of his argument revolved around the destructive nature of capitalism as a result of excessive consumption. India and China in particular with their huge populations, will struggle with the impacts of climate change on our natural resources. This is a result of the implicit and explicit recent adoption of neo-colonial western economics, in his words “they came to the party to late”. A brain drain of independent economists and social theorists away from the east to western neoliberal educators has exacerbated the absence of a indigenous narrative or economic model for “eastern” countries. He believes that intellectual honesty and integrity is key to any work in an international arena.

Mr. Nair aimed to challenge students’ drive for action without necessarily contemplating whether they are perpetuating a redundant mode of organization. While lax on details and prone to generalization, his overall points were well made, stirring up some passions in an over fed and fatigued delegation. I would argue however, that while encompassing a high level of leadership through intellectual integrity, his personal integrity when scrutinized is questionable. Living in Hong Kong, because he “likes money” and positioning himself within western dialogue (including endless New York Times Op eds (Nair, 2014)) to make his arguments on the importance of an “eastern” dialogue is problematic. I like my leaders to practice what they preach  – within reason.

At the other end of the spectrum was Peter Ho, an exceedingly likable charismatic speaker with a penchant for using fairly anodyne leadership jargon for example, “the 7 c’s to success” positioned with enjoyable personal anecdotes. Striding up and down the stage he gleefully reflected on the trajectory of his career framed against leadership themes. As an investment banker for 13 years he made two $1 billion trade deals as a member of JP Morgan in New York. After realizing there was more to life, and deciding it was people that gave him his purpose, not money and moved back to Hong Kong where eventually he became CEO of YMCA Hong Kong. His leadership advice was centered on humility and servitude in order to gain respect. The phrase he mobilized to define the highest level of leadership was coined by John Maxwell,  when people want to follow you “because of who you are and what you represent”, an internal motivation beyond the tangible “because you gave them a promotion”. This approach to leadership relies on growing your personal integrity. Examples helped to substantiate these ideas, such as when Mr. Ho cleaned the toilets to get to grips with employees roles within the organization. Although these were provided against the backdrop of a career where the desired effect of leadership is to increase efficiency and productivity in the context of highly capitalist endeavors.

Mr Ho undeniably has an abundance of personal integrity, however I would question his professional and intellectual integrity – if we are to go by Mr Nair’s professional practices. Working for enormous and deplorably profit driven businesses, unethical (Perez and O’Toole, 2013)  such as JP Morgan put him into a financial position where he was able to cherry pick those that were more purposeful, once he had decided to move on.  This shows a diminished professional and intellectual integrity, by focusing on his individual success then the symptom, not the cause. The Sheffield team particularly felt this, Tamara even challenged Mr. Ho on the role of unethical business in sponsorship. People are clearly extremely important to leadership in international development, however to make effective changes structural inadequacies also need to be addressed.

Chandra Nair’s candid approach, while lacking personal integrity, idealized professional and intellectual integrity as a driving force when becoming a great leader. While Peter Ho, idealized an approach to leadership fore fronting people and the importance of personal integrity and putting cause second or even third, after efficiency. For me, these two dichotomous approaches really stressed the importance of a balanced approach to leadership in international development. Focus on increasing the capacity of and empowering those around you while also challenging the values in the mode of organization is crucial. We need to serve people while questioning how they are served by the structures that reproduce a flaccid global system.


Nair, C. (2014)

Perez and O’Toole. (2013)

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