LEADer/ Teaching For Change

Beijing, 29 October 2015 — Meet Sun Fu, an environmental specialist with a passion for teaching who became an international coordinator for water security. What can we learn from his leadership journey, and what are his 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?

Starting out

Sun Fu was born in 1981 in Nanjing city in Jiangsu province, as the eldest of two brothers. His father and mother were farmers, growing rice and wheat, in Zhucheng (now Chengqiao) where Sun Fu grew up. Later his parents moved into town, where his father became a professional driver, and later took on jobs as a taxi driver. 

“I remember how my father’s work style inspired me to become an engineer. He was good in multi-tasking and fixing mechanical problems by himself, repairing machines and cars, working carefully with tiny parts, and paying attention to details. He had learned this by himself."

His mother was the mobilizer in her family.

“My mother had a higher education than my father, and I learned from her how to manage relationships between people. She was the youngest of six girls in her family, yet it was she who took the lead in organizing family events that reunited her sisters with her parents every year, and in resolving conflicts and solving problems in the family."

Explaining how his mother inspired him as a leader in personal relationships, Sun Fu also shared how his parents decided to follow a Chinese tradition to bring a man into a family without sons, by letting him take the family name of his mother. 

Rural life was tough, and he remembers hard work in the fields during school holidays, collecting the wheat, and manually carrying it home in the hot sun.

Dreaming to teach

As a young student, his dream was to become a teacher.

“As a young boy, I remember pretending to be a teacher by writing on the floor with chalk, since we did not have a blackboard in our home. Early on, I had the idea that when you can teach people, you help them and you also get better in the process.”

In his entrance exam for junior high school, he faced an important choice. Should he go for his dream as quickly as possible by choosing vocational teacher training with the option of leaving his rural area sooner, or continue to senior high school and college, thereby postponing his teaching dream? He chose the latter, and entered life in a dorm with 30 boys in bunk beds in one room, which he recalls as an unforgettable experience.

“The most important thing I learned there is how people have very different habits and time management, some studying and sleeping early and others late, and that we should understand and respect these differences in order to keep good relationships."

The goal now became to get into university, so that he could find a better job with a university degree. Sun Fu set his vision on entering Tsinghua University, one of the two highest-ranked universities in the whole country, and opted to apply for a major in environmental science and engineering, partly because of the inspiration he had found in his father’s mechanical work. Only one in a thousand applicants succeeded at that time, and he was one of them—his hard work paid off. 

Moving to the capital

In 1998 he traveled to Beijing for the first time in his life and entered Tsinghua with an open mind to explore what he could learn in his chosen major, and where he could contribute his knowledge afterwards. His initial thoughts were to work in one of the government’s environment protection bureaus, or becoming responsible for environmental protection in a chemical plant. While studying, his horizon became much broader.

“Coming from a rural area, my knowledge was limited, and I was excited to broaden my horizon to learn about environmental problems throughout China as well as in the world outside my country. My sense of responsibility grew and led me to believe that I should do something for global environmental issues that also affected China."

Sun Fu became an active member of the Students Green Association of Tsinghua University and, after graduation, decided to continue his studies with a combined masters and PhD program in the university’s rapidly developing Department of Environmental Science and Engineering (which later became the School of Environment).

Entering the international world

He describes how his international exposure played a significant role in his professional development during his nine years of studies.

“I learned a lot from joining the Youth Encounter on Sustainability (YES) program in Switzerland, which was my first trip abroad, to work with students from other countries, led by universities in Switzerland, Sweden and Japan. We learned together how to become change makers to deal with the complex and dynamic challenges in our world today, and how to address them from a multidisciplinary perspective."

As he got to know about environmental approaches in other countries, and about their cultures and different perspectives, he also learned how to explain China’s experience and practices. 

“I was impressed by examples in other countries, like wastewater recycling in Japan, and how to scale out innovations over larger areas. I also learned about the importance of institutions and systems, beyond technologies. This led me to focus more on environmental systems analysis, seeing how a whole-systems approach is needed, including coordination among agencies in government. It got me thinking how we can get better at this in China, where the tradition has been for many dragons [institutions] to manage the environment." 

"I also noticed how students from India would always emphasize the need for public participation, and I wondered how we could do a better job in China to involve the public more, including students at Tsinghua. Public participation was still a new idea for us at that time. My international exposure also built my confidence to explain how we manage issues in China, where we always have to deal with large populations, which is quite different from the situation in many other countries. Also, I was surprised to see that in Switzerland people did not work on Sundays, with all the shops closed. How different from China!"

Working for water security

After obtaining his PhD in 2007, Sun Fu pursued his passion for teaching, which he had maintained since primary school. Inspired by his thesis supervisor, he also set out to become a well-known lecturer and researcher in the field of water security.

In his teaching to undergraduate and graduate students, Sun Fu expanded the school’s knowledge on the use of environmental assessment methodologies, including risk assessment and material flow analyses, with cases to demonstrate their use in a wide range of applications in food, water and ecological contexts, including aquatic life in rivers and lakes and the recharge of streams from recycled wastewater in Beijing.

“I love my teaching work with the students. It is fulfilling and exciting for me to develop new knowledge that has practical application and value for our environmental issues in society."

His research work has been shaped by three important developments. First, through his work on the safety requirements of drinking water in China through better risk assessment and management by water utilities. Second, through his work to assist Macau in developing its water quality standards. And third, by international work in Asia, the UK and Germany on research methodologies for climate change impact and adaptation.

“From working with my supervisor, I learned how the research we do in China can influence major projects that are important to the central government on a national scale. We also learn from crises, such as the pollution accident in the Songhua river in 2005, which required close collaboration with the Russian Federation on downstream impacts. From these and other cases, I learned how Tsinghua University works like a think tank of the government to continuously improve how we manage the environment in our country."

In 2014, Sun Fu stepped up to become coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Center for Water Security, which was established by Tsinghua University in 2010. He proceeded to lead the Center’s work with the Global Water Partnership to document China’s policies and practices in integrated water resources management, published in 2015 as China’s Water Resources Management Challenge: The Three Red Lines, and with the Asian Development Bank on the Asian Water Development Outlook.

“Our work for water security has helped me expand on my earlier academic work. We now focus on working with development agencies on a more complete view of water issues and solutions, beyond research."

Learning leadership lessons

Sun Fu’s work to date has exposed him to several leadership lessons.

“The first challenge is for us academics to work closely with government people on practical issues. To do that, I learned the importance of adapting myself to different communication styles and methods, to persuade others, and to work together. This didn’t come natural to me—I forced myself to learn this."

"The second challenge is not giving up. I already learned that success often takes time and comes after failing along the way. However when we give up, it is a certain failure. We need to learn more about overcoming barriers and persuading people. That’s what leadership is about. It is about making change happen. I love to help others in collaborating for change, and my favorite style is as an enabling leader. I feel partly inspired by my mother in this, in how she managed many personal relationships for a good result."

Three recommendations for aspiring leaders

So what are Sun Fu’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?

First, take full responsibility for your job or role. 

“I learned about this when I became coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Center for Water Security. It’s a challenging job and we are working to mobilize more resources to expand its work. By giving it my all, I saw how it could also help my students and research network. And I also saw how I could represent China on the international level. Many people want to learn from China’s experience, and taking full responsibility for my job lets me help more people."

Second, use systems thinking, look at the whole system rather than focusing on parts of it. Take multiple perspectives, good and bad, short and long term.

“From my experience with environmental systems analysis, most of our work is aimed at long-term benefits that should drive our actions now. As we work for change, I learned how to hope for the best and be prepared for the worst. By being prepared with systems thinking and a big-picture view, we can always make a good contribution." 

Third, always be optimistic. By being prepared, we are always able to do well.

“Our attitude matters. To make change happen, we need to be positive and pass our positive attitude to our team, to make them confident to work together, and to become leaders also."

What is next?

With his characteristic calmness, confidence and open mind, Sun Fu is looking ahead at the next challenges.

“I look forward to making a contribution to our country and to the world as a well-known environmental researcher, and I want to see the Asia-Pacific Center for Water Security grow into a recognized center for international water security work."

With his passion for teaching and his enabling leader style to work together for change, he is already making a difference.

Dr Sun Fu and students of Tsinghua University's Global Environment Program discuss leadership with Coach Wouter

Dr Sun Fu and students of Tsinghua University's Global Environment Program discuss leadership with Coach Wouter

© TransformationFirst.Asia Pte Ltd. All rights reserved.

Meet more Asian Leaders here.  Contact us at support@transformationfirst.asia to request permission if you want to translate this story and/or republish all or parts of it. Check here if you would like to nominate someone for our Asian Leaders series.