Leadership Mosaics Across Asia: Power, Relationship and Diversity

Published 23 August 2018

With Asia an important driver of business growth today, it is vital to understand the styles, values and priorities of its business leaders. HCLI’s research initiative, Leadership Mosaics Across Asia provides insights into the Asian ways of leadership. This article shares some of the key findings.

The Power Play
In drawing out the portrait of business leadership for Asia, one inevitably runs into discourse on power. Specifically, legitimate power – where a person in a higher position has control over people in a lower position in an organisation. Legitimate power may be framed differently in different Asian countries. In China, we heard about “respecting the order”. In India, we learnt about a hierarchy-conscious society where older employees in particular, will address the person before the issue, and not the issue irrespective of the person. Across Southeast Asia, words such as “paternalistic”, “hierarchical”, “autocratic”, “feudalistic” and “authoritative” resounded when leaders, both native and foreign, were asked to describe the ways of leadership in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. And in Japan, we were advised that “alcohol is the great social lubricant” that will break down hierarchical barriers more quickly!

The shadow of legitimate power on Asia’s business sector arises from political history. Think of emperors, kings and sultans whose word used to be law. As an executive said, “If you look at Asian history, you say the wrong things and you get beheaded by the king! So I guess the values – residues of it – are still felt today”. Furthermore, particularly in developing Asia where the government may not step in with social security, employers are the security net for low-income employees. These employees obey in debt of gratitude – they perceive that their livelihood hinges on it.

Relationships – for harmony or…?
The topic of relationships will also be inevitably raised when discussing leadership in Asia. Related to this, we heard that it is part of Asia’s cultural DNA to preserve or pursue harmony. Certainly, this was pronounced in Japan – when many moan about the Japanese’s slowness in making decisions or enacting change, they often attribute this to their need to seek and build consensus, in order to ensure beneficial outcomes for different stakeholders and maintain harmony. In Indonesia’s Javanese culture, we learnt that rukun or harmony is the ultimate goal of life. As such, Javanese business leaders appear calm, crises and unexpected shocks notwithstanding.

Despite the top-down power play, harmonious relationships are extended by the leader towards employees at lower levels.

In fact, employees expect it. In Thailand, an executive said, “Just being strong and pounding the table, you won’t get any respect”. In India, leaders emphasised the “emotional connection” that they have to build with their teams. As one shared, “You cannot be disjointed, disconnected, operating from a room and expect the team to follow. You have to be a part of them”. Perhaps a Filipina CEO described herself fittingly – as a “benevolent dictator”!

Beyond aligning with cultural values and employee expectations, Asia’s business leaders emphasise relationships because they know this may be one of the few avenues to get things done and goals accomplished. More explicitly expressed in some countries than others, the entrenched perception remains: many successful leaders today owe their success to friends in both business and political circles. This is particularly so in countries where there is a lack of clear rules and dependable institutions to protect a party’s rights, and people distrust the rule of law. Relationships and networks thus become important as a workaround.

The diversity within
It will however, be a huge mistake to assume that there is a single way of leadership in Asia. Rather, there are Asian ways. Each country has its unique geography and history. Factoring in each society’s influencers and role models that have walked through such space, time and politics, there are nuances to the values, priorities and behaviours of business leaders in each Asian country. Evident to some, Singapore is a clear oddity among its neighbours!

Then, there is intra-diversity within each Asian country. Due to regional differences arising from a huge land mass, there is no standard Chinese or Indian leader. The same applies to archipelagic nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines. Vietnam is a smaller, compact land mass but due to history (and climate, some claim), leaders from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh differ too. And while business leadership in Japan and Singapore may stand a better chance of homogeneity, there are still variances between generations, industries and organisational types (corporate culture trumps national culture?).

To add to the complexity, leadership in Asia is on the move. While the flux is at different speeds in different countries, industries and companies, the message is clear that the region’s leadership mosaic is not a painting locked in time, and cannot afford to be. In fact, Asian business leaders who are unaware, unwilling or incapable of transforming themselves and their organisations will risk becoming laggards.

Wish to know more? Simply visit our website to view the reports. To derive our research insights, we spoke to 165 C-suite leaders based in nine Asian countries: China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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