The Tao of Leadership

Text by Dr Lim Lai Cheng
Photo by Stale Grut

A number of books have espoused the dearth of leaders for businesses and corporations in Asia, and the dire need for leadership training and talent development in this geographical region with distinct histories, cultures, languages, value systems and people.

Leadership programmes come to Asia, often, in the form of MBAs for professionals, organisational training on appreciative inquiry or emotional intelligence, and leadership concepts stemming from the West, such as transformational leadership, authentic leadership or distributed leadership. One wonders how applicable such leadership models and concepts are, especially to leaders and employees in companies that adhere to traditional structures of dominance and power at the deepest level? Might there be a convergence at some stage between management and leadership skills applicable in Asia and the West? As it stands, researchers and leadership gurus are divided on the extent of the gap that needs to be bridged.

To take a case in point, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, a training programme that has gained traction across continents, posit that “leadership is not about your position, personality, power, genetics or family heritage. It is about how you behave in your relationship with others… what you do is more important than who you are and where you come from”. Their leadership development approach is based on five principles – modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act and encouraging the heart – which, they believe, can be applied across different countries, social contexts, and across cultures, environments, settings and people. The thesis in their book, “Exemplary Leadership Traits in Asia” was based on a survey of more than 26,000 employees in Asia who pointed to the fact that how their managers behaved as leaders accounted for nearly 32% of how constituents felt about their workplace. The findings also showed that the impact of how Asian managers behaved as leaders was 60 times more important than any personal or organisational characteristics of their constituents.

The two authors postulated that the word “lead”, derived from “leden” (an Old English term meaning “to guide”) is about taking people to places they have never been before. “To lead” is translated in Chinese as “ling dao” (领导) where the word “ling” means “to guide”. Therefore, “how you guide your people along to places where they have never been before and what you do to lead them is extremely important for your and their success.”

Much as Kouzes and Posner’s five leadership practices have been well received across cultures; however, it cannot be ascertained that the processes of leadership are universal and purely behavioural.

In a meta-analytical study of over 20,000 participants in 18 countries, Leong and Fischer (2011) examined cultural differences in transformational leadership behavior. They found strong evidence for the impact of societal culture, whereby managers in more egalitarian societies behaved in more transformational styles and managers in more power distance countries engaged in less transformational leadership. Researchers Arvey, Dhanaraj, Jaridan and Zhang in a journal article “Are there unique leadership models in Asia? Explaining uncharted territory”[1] also raised the possibility that cultural forces affect the kind of leadership behaviour that is usually accepted and that behaviour that is consistent with collective values will be more acceptable and effective than behaviour that contradicts collective values.

Paul MacDonald, in a separate research project,[2] based his findings on case studies of 200 Chinese business leaders. He asserted that Chinese business leadership is distinctive relative to Western practice and that the source of differentiation manifests at the level of ideological foundations. Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing’s leadership style, for instance, manifests evidence of a Confucian orientation, starting with his quiet humility and spanning to his deep concern for personal reputation based on being polite and acceptable to others. Malaysian magnate, Robert Kuok attributed his success to the vision of the founding members, the dedicated contributions and loyalty of his colleagues and employees, and very importantly, the strong moral principles instilled in him by his mother. Both men are deeply philosophical in their outlook and very attuned to the cultural contexts they were growing their business in.

Kouzes and Posner may be right about the etymology of the Chinese character 领(ling) or “guide”. They might like, however, to delve deeper into the significance of the second character 导 (dao in simplified script) or 導(traditional script) which is made up of two parts: 道 (“path or the Tao”) + 寸 (“inch measured by the span of one’s hand”).

In order to lead or to be a leader, one has to feel the pulse and be in harmony with the moral principle (or Tao) that governs the universe.

The goal of the leader is to have impact and influence. Again, if we examine the Chinese phrase for “influence” – we will realise that 影響 (ying xiang) is made up of two characters, 影 (ying) which denotes “shadow, image or reflection” and 響 (xiang) which denotes “echo, resonance or reverberation”. The word 影 (ying) further comprises two parts – 鄉 (xiang) which means “hometown” and 音 (yin) which means “music”.

To be of influence, a leader needs to be in tune with the desires or longings of his people. His vision or plans have to resonate with the deep-seated longings of his people (the music of their native or home town).

What I have illustrated is just one aspect of the abundant source of intellectual and cultural wisdom that traditional Asian leaders inherently possess, which runs counter to the more transactional and rationalistic foundations that typify Western business practices. Other concepts that are culture-specific include the idea of “guanxi” (or personal relationships) inherent in the Chinese business psyche and the Japanese emphasis on wa (or harmony) which are often not found in Western conceptualisations of leadership.

John Naisbitt, the management guru famously said that for Americans, leadership involves “finding a parade and getting in front of it”. This is certainly not the norm in Asian societies which are more likely to exalt leaders who work from behind the group, to better watch over and protect it from threats, disruption and failure. Lao Tzu (ancient author of the Tao Te Ching) too, had this to say: “to lead the people, walk behind them”.

There is much scope for more research into the wealth of leadership wisdom that is unique to Asia. That said, Asian leaders must realise too, that leadership practices can no longer remain intuitive in the face of competition and the war for global talent. Asian leadership has traditionally been centred on an individual or a business family. In this age of globalisation, leadership has to extend beyond that to embrace institutional concepts. The factors that have made American corporations great, such as leading for organisational impact, change management and systematic talent management will certainly be important for Asian leaders to grasp.

[1] Published in Leadership Quarterly, Vol 26, 2015

[2] “Confucian foundations to leadership: a study of Chinese business leaders across Greater China and Southeast Asia” published in Asia Pacific Business Review Vol 18, No. 4, 2012

About the author

Dr Lim Lai Cheng is Academic Director of the Institute for Societal Leadership and a Fellow of the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University. She was an educator with the Ministry of Education from 1995 to 2013.


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