Insights and Lessons from Leadership in Asia Part 2: Effective Leadership in Asia: Summaries and ImplicationsBY CHRIS ROWLEY & DAVID ULRICH
Following on from Part 1, what leaders do that make them successful is to respond to the country context so that their behaviors are consistent with the values and beliefs of the prevailing culture. Leaders also need to respond to their company culture which creates expectations and norms of
how they should act to help their company deliver business goals.
And, leaders have personal competencies about who they are, what they know, and what they do. The mix of these three drivers of effective leadership are evident in studies.
1. Country context: What is the philosophical context that shapes how leaders think and act
Philosophical approaches that underlie leadership behavior throughout Asia. A thorough and insightful review of Confucian style, principle and constants is useful (McDonald). Similarly, a comparison of Confucian and Daoism ideologies with work by Han Fei which offers a more legalistic view of society and leadership is important (Witzel).
These philosophical differences show up in Western versus Eastern approaches to business (see Table 1).
Leaders from the West assigned to work in Asian organizations need to be aware of their biases and to adapt to Eastern philosophies. Asian leaders who fall prey to only doing things the “Eastern” way will not be able to respond to global pressures. Asian leaders who give in to the “Western way” will lose sight of their heritage and be inattentive to their cultural uniqueness.
2. Company culture: What are the unique company culture challenges that leaders face in
the Asian context?
An organization’s culture often starts with its strategic challenges. Organizations competing on price need to build a culture of efficiency and cost containment. Organizations competing on innovation need to build a culture of risk taking and experimentation.
Across Asian organizations, some common strategic challenges exist. Asian organizations increasingly play in global, not local, markets. As the business world shrinks through technology and access, Asian companies have faced the challenges of becoming more multi national.
Asian organizations are shifting from being low cost drive to discovering how to innovate. It is not enough to be a low cost producer of global goods; Asian organizations are recognizing that they have to provide innovative products and services.
Asian organizations thrive through talent. In Asia the war for talent is intense with concerns around attracting and retaining top talent. Asian organizations also face the business challenges of the shifting sands of demographic change and trends, impacting on labour forces.
In light of these business challenges, Asian organizations have to evolve their corporate cultures.
These evolving cultural issues are discussed in a number of studies. These show that the Confucian context drives a continuous learning culture where leaders act with junzi to encourage self cultivation and learning in Chinese high technology firms (Wang et al).
Others show that Malaysian leaders in financial and information services industries tend to reflect and shape the culture where they work, tendING to be transformational and create new cultures (Jogulu and Ferkins). Still others report that Japanese MNC’s build organization cultures that adapt leadership to the requirements of the local markets where they operate (Black and Morrisson) and others offer suggestions on winning the war for talent through leaders shaping the right culture (Lynton and Beechler).
Out of these, and other studies, we being to recognize some of the cultural dimensions that Asian
leaders must attend to:
• Paternalism. Asian context and organization cultures tend to be hierarchical and leaders tend to be paternalistic, accepting a personal responsibility for the well being of their employees. Asian leaders need to balance their need for hierarchical control through paternalism with employee autonomy that comes from independence.
• Time horizon. Asian mindsets likely focus more on long than short term goals. Partly because of firm financing through debt (where leaders convince a few investors to support them) over equity (where leaders have to show profits to convince many unknown investors to invest), leaders in Asia take a longer term view.
• Benevolence.In most Asian countries and companies, there is a culture of deference within the hierarchy and an emphasis on team work and conformity to shared behavioral expectations. Outspoken employees who challenge their superiors are rare, and traditionally, such behavior is discouraged.
As Tsun-Yan Hsieh said, “We shift and share responsibility and the fruits of our collective labor. So by standing up you’re getting ahead of the field and that’s no good. Harmony and hierarchy work to conspire against taking the initiative, which is a big issue in Asian leadership”.(Tsun- Yan Hsieh, 2006).
• Collaboration. Asian culture encourages collaboration, mutual support, and banding together to achieve common goals – goals often crafted by superiors. Differences of opinion are seldom encouraged and, if voiced, done so privately and with grace.
Public confrontations – including potentially constructive differences of opinion - are
• Relationships.Asian leaders learn the importance of guanxi, or “good connections.” Relationships matter as much or more than technical expertise. Many of these relationships are forged through extended family ties, in education, or early in careers. Inn particular, relationships with government officials and agencies can be especially crucial.
• Organization types. There is an increasingly clear mix of types of companies doing business in Asia. Three organizations archetypes have been identified, each with different leadership requirements.
o Private owned enterprises: The smaller start up companies are often run by families. Some of these companies have grown quickly and shifted from family to professional management, but they still have embedded family cultures.
o State owned enterprises: large, government owned enterprises govern the traditional infrastructure (construction, telecommunication, education, utilities, finance). These organizations work to adapt to changing conditions and to make the bureaucracy more adaptable.
o Multinational corporations: Large organizations headquartered outside of Asia and doing business in Asia and Asian organizations seeking to do business in the rest of the world have the challenge of adapting practices from one geography to another.
As Asian leaders recognize the business challenges and subsequent organization cultural requirements, the will be able to determine what they have to know and to do be effective leaders and build effective leadership.
3. Personal competence: What are the personal characteristics of effective leadership?
There have been numerous studies about whether leaders are born or breed. These studies look for who leaders are, what they know, and what they do as driven by their heritage vs. their ability to learn. In general, these studies who that about 50% of who leaders are comes from their heritage and 50% comes from their environment.
This implies that leaders have predispositions that influence how they think and act. But, the data also implies that leaders who learn can think and act differently if the consciously choose to do so.
Some authors examine these personal characteristics in the Asian context. These show that personal authenticity in the Asian context focuses less on self and more on the context in which one operates. While relational authenticity is a predisposition for Asian leaders, it is also something that can be identified and learned (Zhang et al).
Others show that leaders who master reflector and pragmatic learning skills and demonstrate leadership styles associated with transformation will be more effective, as for small (tyre) retailers in Thailand, as these learning skills and leadership style can be learned to help leaders succeed (Michie and Zumitzava).
Others (Wu et al) unbundle paternalism in the Asian (mostly Chinese) context, showing that paternalism comes from morality, benevolence, and authoritarianism, finding that when leaders build trust, they can deliver results.
These findings give insights into what an individual Asian leader needs to recognize to be effective. When leaders are self aware of their predispositions, they are able to apply or adapt them to their required results.
The result of these conclusions has implications for leadership theory, research, and practice.
For theory and research
As we have read, reviewed, and summarized these excellent studies and articles, we realize that we have only scratched the limited surface of leadership in Asia. These articles suggest that much more remains to be done.
Some theoretical questions:
• What are the mechanisms by which contextual culture, organization culture, and personal
competence are transferred?
• What is the relative weight of these three factors in driving leadership effectiveness?
Some future research:
• How do we compare leadership more subtly across Asian countries?
• What are the leadership requirements at different levels?
If you are an Asian leader who wants to be more effective, we offer a couple of suggestions.
First, recognize your biases. Every leader consciously or unconsciously has biases about work. When these contextual, company, and personal biases are codified and recognized, they can be managed. Sometimes it is easy to do what comes naturally; and at other times it is important to recognize that the situation requires you to do something else.
Second, recognize the setting in which you work. If you are in a SOE, you may recognize that leadership will require more change than you have previously experienced in your professional career.
If you are in a POE, you may have to focus on how to replace yourself with someone whose skills are different from yours. If you are in an MNC, you may have to recognize that leadership means learning to act on Western not just Eastern assumptions if you are to become a truly global leader.
Few doubt that leaders and leadership matter. As Asian becomes a sustainable economic global player, the lessons of Asian leadership may help leaders around the world know what they have to do be more effective.
Professor Chris Rowley, Director, Research and Publications, HEAD Foundation, Singapore and Cass Business School, City University, London, UK.
Professor Dave Ulrich, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and Partner, The RBL Group