Mary Wadsworth Darby, Chief Representative of CKGSB Americas delivered a presentation on the differences in leadership styles between China and the West, as part of a forum on emerging trends in global business administration. The event was organized by CKGSB in partnership with the Executive Next Practices Institute, where C-Suite leaders, business owners, top HR and talent professionals gathered to discuss the most important topics and emerging trends in business administration.
Darby opened her talk with a brief description of the intellectual history of leadership in the west, which long concentrated on the study of the actions of a few great men. However, modern day scholars of leadership—like the late Warren Bennis and Harvard’s Michael Jensen—have focused on psychological underpinnings of good leadership, arguing good leadership can be taught. “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born, that there is a genetic factor to leadership,” Darby said, quoting Bennis. “That‘s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made, rather than born.”
Jensen and Bennis have taught that there are essential qualities for good leadership, like the ability to creatively adapt to situations and free yourself of perceptual constraints. Though these qualities may not be the first that heads of Chinese state owned enterprises strive to achieve, one main theme of Darby’s talk was that although there are important and subtle cultural differences that must be negotiated when a Westerner does business in China or vice versa, both cultures share many important beliefs as well. “The differences between leadership failure in Western and Chinese or Asian philosophies and practice are very similar,” Darby said. “The differences in success in US or Western and Chinese and Asian philosophies are far more different.”
To understand how the ideas of leadership success in China differ from those in the United States, one needs understand the ancient philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism. These philosophies are the basis upon which Chinese society has been built, and especially when it comes to state-owned Chinese enterprises, which still account for roughly 20% of the Chinese economy. “The philosophies of Chinese state-owned enterprises are surprisingly inline with Confucianism,” Darby said.
Confucianism is first and foremost a hierarchical philosophy that demands that each member of a group cultivate and adhere to their proper role in that group. The leader of the group is responsible for creating an environment where all of these relationships can thrive, whether they are between parent and child, a husband and wife, or a ruler and his subjects. This familial conception of societal hierarchy and the role of the leader has tended to make Chinese corporate environments more intimate than they are in the West.
In the Chinese firm, therefore, things like job security, the importance of intrapersonal relationships, and maintaining one’s reputation based on his position within the hierarchy are paramount. This places a great burden on a leader in the Chinese system, who is tasked with most decision making as well as maintaining familial harmony in even the most sprawling enterprises. One example of how this manifests itself for Chinese leaders is that they are expected to have an intimate understanding of their subordinates, such that they know personal information like avocational interests and birthdays.
Another scenario in which differences in attitudes toward leadership may become salient is when Westerners are negotiating with a Chinese counterpart. “There are many people in Chinese organizations that have the responsibility for marketing with you or setting up new ventures,” Darby said. “but there are very few that have the authority to oversee and make decisions,” because it’s not their position to do so in a Confucian environment.
At the same time, there are commonalities between the Western and Eastern concepts of a good leader. To illustrate this point, Darby presented a list of behaviors that will result in leadership failures, like thinking too highly of oneself; hunger for fame, position or money; or indecisiveness. Though one would find American leadership experts admonishing against these very vices, Darby drew them from the teachings of the 6th century BC, Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu.
The Western and Eastern approaches to leadership also similarly emphasize the personal integrity of managers. Darby said that Confucianists “consider righteousness to be of the highest importance,” but Westerners can also understand the importance of probity in their leaders. Without personal integrity, a leader cannot inspire the kind of trust in his subordinates that is required for true leadership.
But what Westerners who come from a more individualistic culture often misunderstand is how this emphasis on personal integrity is intertwined with a business culture that promotes familial intimacy between managers and employees or negotiating partners. “If you want to achieve success with a Chinese counterpart,” Darby said, “it’s the human relationship that’s the most important, and how you relate to colleagues.”