Chinese Leadership -
What's the Same and What has Changed
by Dr. Karen Otazo
After sixteen days in China, I left with
two powerful reminders of my time there: a bad case of the flu
and a new understanding of Chinese leadership styles. Twenty
years ago, I lived in China and I've gone back regularly since
then. This time I was part of a trade delegation of business,
education and political leaders from Houston, Texas. We were
able to meet with our counterparts in schools, government and
business. We even met with the Chinese National Offshore Oil
Company (CNOOC) with whom I worked two decades ago as part of
ARCO Oil and Gas Company.
Back then, I learned that the Chinese leadership ideal is that
of a good and caring father or mother. Talking to CNOOC leaders
recently, I found that this is still true. If you ask Chinese
young people about leadership, they reflect on the lessons they
learned in their childhoods from their parents -- their first
leadership role models.
A parental ideal of leadership is also the Confucian view.
Through this dominant philosophical system, the Chinese have
been taught that a good boss cares for his or her work family
while a good follower is loyal to a work parent and obeys him or
her the way you would a father or mother. In fact, a good
employee will work to make the boss look good and be successful.
However, that ideal view of leaders and employees as family is
waning in China and elsewhere in Asia.
Worldwide, the number one reason for
employees to leave their jobs is their relationship with their
bosses. In the late 1990's a survey of Chinese employees ranked
how much they appreciated leaders from different nationalities.
Surprisingly, Philippine leaders came out on top, while
different nationalities of Chinese leaders got the lowest
scores. What respondents talked about was how much it mattered
when their bosses paid attention to them, their development and
their careers. More caring was more important than more money.
As I talked with dozens of young people in Shanghai, Dalian and
Beijing, I saw that some things haven't changed in terms of the
expectations they have of their leaders. Twenty years ago there
was, as always, an emphasis on career advancement. Then, as now,
husbands and wives often lived apart in different cities or
geographic locations. In the past, that was so because of
Nowadays it is often more about pursuing a career. Years ago the
Chinese were just learning about profit and business planning.
Now they are eager for the government to be business friendly so
that they can all prosper. As always they're eager to learn.
Leaders who coach and mentor them are much appreciated.
What has changed is how high and how fast these folks expect to
move and progress. China is now like a big learning laboratory.
The folks who went away are coming back. Fu Chengyu, the
president of CNOOC, is one of them. Mr. Fu holds a masters
degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Southern
California. He got his leadership and management experience
when, earlier in his career, he led the joint management
committee overseeing joint ventures with BP (Originally started
by ARCO) and Shell. Of course, his English is excellent. He has
high ambitions, and well he should. Although he has suffered
some disappointments - he is chagrined that his company's bid
for Unocal was rebuffed by political pressures in the US -- the
lessons of experience have helped him, and others are taking
note. Leaders in even state-owned industries are going to
management and leadership programs and academic institutions in
Asia and the west. They are eager to turn their old institutions
and their start-ups into growing concerns.
As foreign connections have become more plentiful and easier for
Chinese people to make, the nature of networking and guanxi, or
relationships, there has changed. No longer will someone whisper
that his or her uncle can turn your electricity off or on if you
do business with them. And sadly, no longer do people eagerly
take your business card in both hands and cherish the contact.
There is more of an attitude of WIFFM, "what's in it for me."