Dhanin Chearavanont (8): Small leader, big results
There is one teacher in my life I will never forget: Ms. Chen Shifu, my homeroom teacher at the elementary school I attended in Swatow.
Ms. Chen encouraged me at a time when I had few friends, having just moved to China from Thailand. At her suggestion, I got up in front of the class and told them about Thai folk tales. My classmates burst out laughing at the amusing stories and promptly opened their hearts to me.
Having graduated teaching school, Ms. Chen was then in her late 20s. Her husband taught at a middle school in Jieyang, around 30km from Swatow. When I became sick and had to be hospitalized, she came to check on me. During that summer break, she didn't go back to Jieyang but stayed in Swatow to help me catch up on all the lessons I'd missed.
Ms. Chen treated not just me but all of the students kindly and without favoritism. She never took days off, even when she was sick. One time when she caught a cold, my classmates and I visited the lodging house where she lived and helped with her housework. I also gave her some medicine I had brought from Thailand.
Learning to lead
Our teacher worried about students who couldn't keep up with lessons and proposed that everyone in the class help tutor those with poor marks. I invited a number of classmates to my home for study sessions. Some students didn't have electricity at home, making it difficult for them to study once night fell. My home not only had electricity but also a large room where we all could gather.
For the study sessions, each of us would choose a different topic to teach the others so we could cover a broad range of subjects. This approach encouraged everyone to take an active interest in studying. My classmates would spend the night at my house and rise early the next morning, reciting passages from textbooks from memory. Even the marks of underachieving students improved, and our class became the most academically successful in the entire school.
I also ended up being the leader when our class competed against others in basketball or games of tug-of-war. I came up with strategies to help us win, and then we all pooled our strength to turn those plans into victory. Although still young, I came to understand the pleasure of motivating a group. I was even elected class president.
One thing I'll never forget is becoming friends with an unpopular boy. He had no friends, and even his parents didn't spend time with him. Lacking affection, he tried to get attention by repeatedly misbehaving.
I understood how he was feeling. I became his only friend and nudged him, little by little, to change his behavior. He eventually started listening to what I said, even though his parents or teachers couldn't get through to him.
I inherited my mother's compassion and consideration for other people's feelings. This became a great asset later in managing a company: If you put yourself in other people's shoes and consider how they are feeling, they'll follow you. If you simply try to force your own views on them, they won't listen.
I attended school in Swatow until my first year of middle school. Partway through that year, I transferred to a middle school in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province. My older sister was attending a university there, and I lived with her.
In Guangzhou, I suddenly had to use Cantonese in my daily life. Although both the Chaozhou dialect and Cantonese originated in the province of Guangdong, the pronunciations of the two are so different they may as well be foreign languages. At first, I couldn't understand what people were saying unless I saw the Chinese characters. I was never able to speak Cantonese myself.
I left the middle school in Guangzhou after just a year, without graduating. That was because I was going to attend school in Hong Kong to study English.
Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.