Although historically leadership styles between Western and Chinese cultures have been viewed as quite different, both have been evolving and signs of convergence are emerging. Therefore, the concept of leadership has been modified over time and could be seen as a holistic approach, instead of dependent on cultural settings.
There is an abundance of past research seeking to understand and compare leadership styles in Chinese and Western cultural settings. A recent review of such research, conducted by Professor Peter King (Beijing University of Technology) and Dr Wei Zhang (Beijing University of International Business and Economics) explored the changing landscape of leadership in the context of these two cultures.
The overall purpose of this research was to identify the differences and similarities between Chinese and Western leadership approaches, and to determine if one or the other is more compatible with contemporary society.
The research is based on 646 different studies from peer-reviewed publications, which were examined to identify leadership approaches used in China and the West. The authors refer to ‘Western’ leadership as that being practiced within European and American cultures.
Publications were selected based on their use of the keywords - leadership, Chinese leadership and Chinese culture. The list then further refined to only studies that included leadership attributes that were comparable between Chinese and Western cultures. Attributes of leadership could include roles, qualities and treatment of subordinates. There was a mixture of publications focused on either just Western or Chinese leadership principles, as well as publications that compared the two. The studies were then examined to identify the attributes of leader’s characteristic of successful leadership.
Only studies published since 1980 were included in the review, as China adopted a market economy in 1979 and this marked a shift in China’s economic perspective and standing. King and Zhang felt that studies of Chinese leadership prior to this time would have been more reflective of political, rather than business, principles of leadership and therefore less comparable to studies of Western leadership.
King and Zhang’s key findings were that paradigms of leadership have been changing in both Chinese and Western cultures, and this has resulted in some convergence between the two in terms of what is valued in leaders.
The review revealed that Western leadership principles have focused on elements such as profit generation, long term future planning, human relationships and strategic planning. Workers were traditionally seen as impersonal components of production, and management theories prioritised achievement of objectives and maintaining command.
More recent approaches have emphasised the value of respecting employees, valuing their contribution and promoting their career development. This shift towards mutual respect is closely aligned to the Chinese principle of interactional respect.
Ancient Chinese philosophy is firmly entrenched in traditional Chinese leadership, with a strong focus on improving employees through personal development. Leaders in a Chinese environment are expected to regard “ethical considerations above the achievement of profit”. Other elements of Chinese leadership principles include assuming the role of inspirational character, leading by example in terms of promoting equality, simple living and harmony with nature and others.
Trends over time
The researchers found that Chinese workplaces had evolved concepts of leadership by integrating methods from Western management approaches, through education abroad and being exposed to Western organisations in China. King and Zhang clarify that this does not necessarily mean the fundamental values underlying Chinese leadership principles have changed, but that Chinese leaders are adopting more ‘scientific’ approaches to how they manage (for example focusing on efficiency, elimination of waste, standardisation and automation of processes).
The researchers also identified that leadership paradigms in the West are changing, with a growing emphasis on more humanistic elements of leadership. This concept is closely related to traditional Chinese values such as incorruptibility, sense of shame and morality. King and Zhang believe this shift is due to an increasing focus worldwide on human rights, which will continue to place pressure on traditional Western management principles to evolve in response.
The one attribute of leadership that was found to be universal between both cultures was that economic benefits were the primary focus of leaders. There were still differences, however, in how this focus was influenced by the relationship between a leader and employees. King and Zhang believe that while Chinese principles emphasise the individual contribution employees can make to achieving these economic results, Western leadership still perceives employees as ‘dehumanised’ inputs into the production of economic results.
King and Zhang suggest that the convergence of leadership principles between Western and Chinese cultures will ultimately improve the effectiveness and efficiency of leaders and businesses across both cultures. Chinese businesses will benefit from an increased focus on efficiency and innovation, while Western businesses will benefit from improved labour relations and organisational commitment.
King and Zhang argue that attempting to classify leadership into hierarchies or structures is not appropriate due to the large variation of roles and characteristics leaders must fulfil. The authors highlight that effective leadership requires the application of a blend of skills and insights, and that the best blend is reflective of the particular situation in which leadership is being applied.
Instead, King and Zhang suggest a universal perspective of leadership could bring together all the attributes of leadership from various cultures and philosophies, where the combination of these attributes can be modified as necessary to suit different situations.
The key message from King and Zhang’s review is that modern approaches to leadership in the West and China have evolved to adopt elements and principles from each other. However, this is not to suggest leadership in these two cultures is now the same. The implications for managers in both Western and Chinese environments is that there is acceptance of a broader range of leadership skills or principles recognised as effective. It also suggests there is less of a cultural divide between leaders in these two cultural contexts than may have been present two or three decades ago.
For organisations based on a Western model of leadership, it will no doubt be of interest to learn that the more humanistic approach has a long tradition in the East.
The findings of the review also provide some interesting perspectives for Western organisations that are interacting with Chinese organisations or leaders. Although there is an indication that Chinese leaders are adopting aspects of Western leadership, there remains a heavy emphasis on traditional Chinese values. Gaining an understanding and appreciation for these will better equip a Western organisation to develop closer, trusted relationships. Likewise, if Western leaders are responsible for managing a team of Chinese employees (or vice versa), being aware of the similarities and differences between expected leadership behaviours will enable a manager to adapt their style accordingly by drawing on a range of leadership characteristics from both cultures.
To read the full article, see King P. & Zhang. W. “Chinese and Western Leadership Models: A literature review” Journal of Management Research, Vol 6, No. 2 (2010), pp.1-21.