Processes or Results: Where Do Asian Leaders Focus?

HCLI Research
Published 4 November 2014

Dr. Cedomir Nestorovic explains differences in leader behavior in terms of whether he or she focuses on processes or outcomes and explores the role of culture in that focus.

Identifying what it takes to be an Asian leader today is an arduous task because the discussion can go in various directions. We could focus on competency, contingency or transformational perspectives for instance. All these elements are essential parts of leadership theories but in this article we will focus on behavioural perspectives. Behavioural theories usually separate task-oriented leaders from people-oriented leaders. Here, however, we will use a slightly different approach. We will differentiate between leaders who focus predominantly on results and leaders who focus primarily on processes.

Results – “The End Justifies The Means”

The first approach is often observed in countries or companies that have started from an earlier stage of development and are willing and determined to achieve very rapid growth. This was particularly true in China when the nation first implemented its Open Door Policy during the late-1970s. A very famous maxim of Deng Xiaoping stated, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.” This philosophy has guided decision-making for both government and corporate leaders in China and has delivered the truly impressive results that they sought.

We could also draw a parallel with the saying “the end justifies the means”, which creates a mindset that allows people in leadership positions to justify to stakeholders, or even themselves, that the way in which something is done does not matter as long as – in the end – the common good is achieved for the majority. This might include security, economic growth, good infrastructure and education for all.

This pragmatic approach of focusing primarily on results could result in some undesirable consequences, such as high levels of corruption and income inequality, because the focus on results favours the use of capital accumulation for development, which produces winners and surplus on one side and corruption on the other.

China’s unrelenting growth leveraged heavy industry development in urban areas. However, this fuelled disparity between incomes of different groups of citizens, characterised by rural-urban income inequality. The widest gap was observed in 2009, where city-dwellers earned more than three times than farmers, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China.

Processes – An Obligation of Means

Conversely, the focus on processes emphasises how leaders manage their teams. It is more important to have good governance, transparency and respect for guidelines than an absolute obsession with profit maximisation or growth at all costs. If we put the focus on process, it is definitely an obligation of means (or obligation of conduct) that we are looking for and not an obligation of results. It does not mean that corruption or income inequality will disappear with the focus on process. It means only that all the procedures have been respected.

This approach corresponds to another maxim, also from China, this time from before Deng Xiaoping’s era: “A socialist train coming with a delay is better than the capitalist one that comes on time.” The government of current President Xi Jinping is clearly concentrating on the process side, since he declared war on corruption and aims to reduce inequalities in the country. This is why many Chinese companies and governmental agencies have since adopted codes of conduct with insistence on rule of law. Regulators, lawyers and judges are today vital to Chinese society.

Orthodoxy versus Orthopraxy

These two opposite definitions of success could have deep cultural roots. It is based on behavioural values and the origin of these values could be ideological, philosophical or religious. The first one focusing on results could be placed in the ‘orthodoxical’ category. “Ortho” means right and “doxa” means the doctrine in religious terms. These are core values that are ingrained in the individuals and are hard to change. Believers – in this case, leaders and employees – are strongly guided by their beliefs when making decisions. If the doctrine is to set tangible and quantified objectives regardless of the way they are achieved, we will have the glorification of The Wolf of Wall Street (a blockbuster movie featuring a stockbroker engaged in mass fraud and corruption). In contrast, the second definition of success is in the ‘orthopraxical’ category, meaning “right” “practice”, where the ‘right behaviour’ is more important than results.

The antagonism between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is very evident in Asia. This is especially so when we contrast the many different religious practices in Asia, some of which place more emphasis on orthopraxy, and others on orthodoxy. As there are differences between some of the biggest religions and philosophies of life across the region, it would not be fair to define a single Asian leadership style. Commonalities in Asia are smaller than the differences separating them, and if we were to widen our leadership approaches to include Russia and the Middle East, then we are looking at a kaleidoscope of many influencing factors. So, the chances are few that we could speak of an Asian approach in leadership showing strong,commonalities among Russians, Indonesians and Saudis, for instance.

This is, however, an oversimplified conclusion because if ‘Asianess’ does not exist from inside, it could be imposed from the outside. In that case, ‘Asian leadership’ would be more of a default concept, similar to the default concept of ‘European’ or ‘Western leadership’.

Today, the growing convergence of leadership approaches is leaning increasingly towards processes. In some Asian countries, after a period of rapid growth, there is strong demand for work-life balance, inclusiveness, diversity acceptance, politically correct behaviour and the rejection of any form of discrimination. If such convergence continues, there could be a move towards a Western focus on processes. The emphasis on regular working hours, a good work environment, lifelong education and health care, for example, are becoming hot topics in countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

East-West Convergence

The tectonic shift in Asia from ‘duties’ to ‘rights’ will thus cause more and more convergence between Asia and the rest of the world in terms of leadership practices. However, this process is evolutionary and susceptible to macroeconomic influences driving developments in this part of the world. Perhaps the most important indicator to look at in terms of trajectory would be the youth. In May 2014, Fortune magazine published the results of a survey, “The Great Workplaces for Millennials” – millennials meaning members of the US workforce between the ages of 18 and 35. Of note, the primary motivations in selecting great workplaces are fair pay (and not highest pay possible), having a say in decisions (taking part in the decision-making process) and being overseen by competent management (how leaders manage their teams). All of these motivations refer to the process and not to results.

This article was first published in HQ Asia (Print) Issue 08 (2014).

Start your Leadership Journey Today

Let HCLI be your trusted partner to facilitate organisational progression through multi-level leadership development.