Living in a copy: Thames Town

What a chinese fake town tells us about Leaderhip

by Augustine Pasin (editet by Sabine Gromer)

For three years, I lived in a ghost town in the Songjiang District of Shanghai modelled after Victorian England called Thames Town. Now for the segue. Here are the three things Thames Town taught me about leadership.

1. Never fake something

Thames Town is a ghost town for a reason. It is virtually uninhabitable. What might first appear as authentic recreations of Victorian town-homes are, in fact, shallow facades built with cheap mortar, concrete and paint. The few buildings are functioning are home to British staples such as McDonalds, a Familymart (a Japanese chain of mini-marts), and a very out-of-place Baskin-Robbins (a classic American ice-cream shop now owned by Dunkin’ Donuts).

Many leaders have built similar facades, hiding their personality behind a recreation of perceived leadership qualities. They are who they think they HAVE TO be. But much like the copied Thames Town, we can see through the illusion quickly. Whenever you fake something, it comes with a huge price tag on your own mental health and leads to a distrusting and disengaged workforce. Rather than pretending to be something you are not (and spend 5 billion yuan in the process), play to your strengths.

2. There is a difference between borrowing and copying

Thames Town is a shameless attempt to attract domestic tourism by copying classic British architectural styling, and some part of me respects the architects for their brazenness, but Thames Town is the living embodiment of copying off of your classmate’s exam. Then somehow still failing the exam.

There is nothing wrong with borrowing ideas, styling, or structure from those who have found success in their art. However, rarely does the exact same formula work twice (with the exception perhaps of pop music). When creating a business, a work of art, or an academic essay, it is important to adapt your strategy to fit your own goals, your audience, and whatever relevant variables apply to your format. No one can implement your ideas in the way you can! It is the uniqueness of one’s leadership that is inspiring to others. Adopt models, surveys, leadership styles but make them YOUR OWN.

3. Seeing past the superficial

Here is the twist. Yes, our collective middle-school teachers had a point. There is intrinsic value in creating something of quality that one’s peers notice and value. And the antithesis of the saying is on full display with Thames Town. However, I cannot discredit the end product. Everyday hundreds of Shanghainese couples visit Thames Town to have their pictures taken next to the congregation-less Church, or to smile next to the Queen’s Guards or statues of famous historical British icons like Harry Potter (pictured on the right).

In the end, Thames Town succeeded in its goal of attracting domestic tourism and is a beloved weekend hot-spot for Shanghai natives, despite its tackiness and poor execution. So, in spite of its flaws, Thames Town is a statement to understanding your audience.

It is a reminder to me that even low-quality products, with proper execution and consumer awareness, can flourish. And that even if something is superficially unappealing, it is important to empathize with those that enjoy it in order to better understand one’s audience.

I believe this can apply to leaders as well. It is highly probable that your budgets will be cut, that you will be faced with less funds available to invest in talent than you would like. Still, there is much you can do on a low budget that will create joy, a positive vibe and reinforce the right behaviors. How about hand-written “thank you” cards? Pizza deliveries on Friday? Or virtual coffee session?

Even when the tools you have are limited make the best out of it. Even when you admire the people around you, get inspire. But don’t copy. Borrow, adjust and own it! All Facades begin to crumble eventually and that’s okay. All that matters is that there is something behind that facade. Despite its garish appearance; shoddy craftsmanship; and absence of authentic British brands, I always enjoyed hanging out around Thames Town with my friends on the weekend. Grabbing an ice-cream from Baskin-Robbins. Or practicing my Chinese with the lovely elderly woman behind the counter at Familymart. So, my final piece of leadership advice is to see beyond the superficial. You might find a diamond hidden within the coal.