CKGSB’s Darby: West Paying Greater Attention to Confucian, Taoist Leadership Principles
August 14, 2016

Future heads of family businesses from both the United States and China explored the making of great leaders in a Cornell University session taught by CKGSB Americas Senior Director Mary Wadsworth Darby, part of CKGSB and Cornell’s joint Global Emerging Leaders in Family Enterprises (GEL) program.

Ms. Darby took participants in the July 14 session at Cornell’s Ithaca, New York, campus through a comprehensive look at global leadership principles. Her lecture and presentation illustrated that while Western and Eastern notions of leadership have traditionally differed, China’s recent emergence as a global economic powerhouse has sparked both interest in leadership in Asia and China and an awareness that emerging Asian leaders likely will be shaped by their historical, cultural and business contexts.

Ms. Darby’s session looked at approaches advanced by two acclaimed Harvard Business School scholars: Warren Bennis, HBS’s Dean of Leadership Studies, who argues that leadership is born of a transformative personal experience; and Michael Jensen, an HBS Nobel Prize Winner, who claims that one creates one’s own leadership context by ridding oneself of perceptual restraints.

Ms. Darby’s audience included many potential new scions of family businesses and featured a high degree of open idea-sharing between students and teacher.

Men in war

The program was part of a week of sessions at CKGSB’s Americas office in Manhattan and Cornell. Taught by faculty from both CKGSB and Cornell, the program instructed incoming new business leaders how to develop succession strategies for sustaining their enterprise over generations. Ms. Darby and Daniel Van Der Vliet, Executive Director of the Smith Family Business Initiative at Cornell, were academic co-directors.

Western leadership traits traditionally have been learned through the study of “great men in war or other competition,” such as French military leader Napoléon Bonaparte, American Revolutionary War commander (and later first US President) George Washington and personal computer innovator Steve Jobs, Ms. Darby said.

By contrast, Chinese leadership views have been mainly grounded in the Confucian and Taoist schools of thought developed in 6th century B.C.

Confucianism advocates building leadership on strong moral character. “If the leader is upright, people will follow,” Ms. Darby said. Leaders who follow in the teachings espoused by the philosopher Confucius also cultivate human relationships. Organizations built on a Confucian leadership philosophy – such as many Chinese State Owned Enterprises (SOE) – tend to be hierarchical because, “If you are not in a certain position, you do not concern yourself with matters concerning that position,” Ms. Darby said. Finally, the Confucian leader looks on himself as a lifelong learner whose guiding principle is “to listen and observe first before committing oneself to a course of action.”

Search for Tao

Taoism, founded by Lao Tzu, emphasizes the search for Tao (the Way), or the ultimate truth. Taoist leaders need to understand and predict environmental changes to find the best possible conditions for optimum organizational performance.

Despite their initial focus on male leaders in battle, Western business schools have recently begun to study the psychological foundations of effective leadership.

For instance, HBS’s Professor Bennis believes that leaders are forged by the process of emerging from adversity and crises without losing hope, therefore becoming stronger and more committed to a cause. Professor Jensen, also of HBS, sees the prerequisite for becoming a leader as “getting rid of automatic knee-jerk reactions” and seeing a situation as it is.

“One of the arguments (Professor Jensen) gives is that we should always be listening and looking at the environment,” Ms. Darby said. In Professor Jensen’s view, managers who constantly distort situations with automatic responses such as “I am the boss, don’t question me,” need to rid themselves of such “perceptual obstacles,” she said.

The session also delved into the extent to which race, gender or religion have affected the emergence of leaders, citing the success of African-Americans such as US President Barack Obama and American Express CEO/Chairman Ken Chenault, and women such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. 

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