Making Leadership More Effective in Asia
Business Journal

Making Leadership More Effective in Asia

Better leadership development is critical to the region's long-term growth

Not long ago, the collective might of "Chindia" was seen as a palpable force. Today, that powerhouse image has eroded as China confronts the fallout of its aggressive pace of growth and India fails to live up to its economic potential. The economic crisis has taken a toll on other economies in the Asia-Pacific region as well.

The best predictor of positive outcomes is leadership, whether that leadership is political, judicial, or economic.

More recently, there is talk of an Asian recovery, with renewed growth in Southeast Asian economies such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. There's also a sense of optimism about the potential of some of the "tiger cub" economies, including Vietnam and Myanmar. The region seems to promise a new wave of economic revival.

Region in ferment

Asia is at an inflection point in its history, and the region faces challenges from diverse influences and pressure points. From cultural obstacles stemming from old civilizations to the raw energy of a vibrant and impatient youth; from the challenges of poverty and human inequity to those of rapid development; from its people's desire for political and social freedoms to their struggles to achieve their economic aspirations -- all these elements represent a region in ferment.

Some Asian nations are further along in their development than others, but all are transforming, slowly but surely. Exactly what this transformation will mean -- or what shape it might take -- is still largely unknown. What is certain is that Asia will play an ever-larger role in shaping world business in the future.

There are no easy solutions to the complex problems that Asian countries grapple with. What is common across these diverse situations and challenges is that the best predictor of positive outcomes is leadership, whether that leadership is political, judicial, or economic. The recent economic crisis has sharply highlighted the need for effective leadership in businesses around the world. That need is even more urgent in Asia, given the region's current stage of growth and its socio-political realities.

A fine-tuned perspective on what makes business leaders successful will be a real asset -- and provide a competitive edge -- in the coming decade. It will also help companies navigate the future uncertainties expected in the region. There are three key strategies that companies in Asia must adopt to maximize leadership talent: Focus on strengths, create a strong culture of coaching and mentoring, and build global competence.

Focus on strengths

Though the demands that leaders face might be common across the world, leadership styles and behaviors are rooted in cultural specifics. Examining leadership in a cultural context will be particularly relevant as workplaces become more multicultural, companies continue to expand globally, and competition intensifies.

Traditionally, Asians are conditioned to venerate seniors and follow established norms and customs, so imitation and loyalty are prized over developing each person to his or her full potential. Asian culture -- with its lower tolerance for dissident viewpoints -- tends to result in teams in which senior executives and managers think and behave like their leader, which in turn results in groupthink and a lack of innovation.

Asian leaders must give people freedom to find and develop their own leadership strengths and style. A key change is creating a strengths-based leadership culture, allied with an organizational culture that builds on the diverse pool of strengths within a company. This cultural shift signals a real will to develop authentic leaders who are grounded in the diverse strengths they can offer, rather than fixating on a "me too" leadership style. Gallup research has shown that people who focus on using their strengths are three times more likely to be happier with their lives in general and six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. Senior leaders need to do more to ensure that their companies widely encourage and promote a focus on building authentic, unique strengths.

Create a strong culture of coaching and mentoring

Gallup's research provides a clear picture of what followers want and need from a leader: trust, stability, hope, and compassion. This comes surprisingly close to what Sun Tzu mentions in his seminal treatise, The Art of War, as the five qualities of a leader: wisdom, trustworthiness, benevolence, courage, and firmness.

In business as in life, there is a mutual interdependence between leaders and their followers. In other words, the relationship between leaders and those they lead is a symbiotic, two-way rapport rather than a dependent, one-way relationship. Leaders must recognize that they can lead effectively only with the support -- and on behalf -- of those they lead. They must also acknowledge their role as torch bearers with a responsibility to the future leaders who will come after them. This represents a different value system than the one underlying current leadership models. This is an idea whose time has come, in a time when ethics and moral integrity are recognized as critical components of leadership.

Coaching and mentoring are also key responsibilities of this alternate leadership model. They are how responsive leaders acknowledge the social and moral imperative underlying their relationship with those they lead. Though many companies have an expectation that leaders will coach and mentor emerging leaders, few leaders actually do.

This reinforces the need for a 70:20:10 approach to executive development: 70% experiential, 20% coaching, and 10% courses or reading. Learning and development functions in Asia rely more on experiential development. Allying experiential learning with cross-functional and multilevel interactions and responsibilities would create positive energy within the existing framework. Adopting this model would also shake up the rigid, hierarchical Asian corporate culture.

The act of coaching and mentoring has a strong "pay it forward" effect. In one large Asian company, we saw that leaders who were coached by their managers -- in this case, the leadership team at the company -- were about twice as likely to coach their own direct reports. A strong culture of coaching makes it accessible all the way down the corporate ladder. And the impact and benefit of coaching at all levels far exceeds the impact of static courses on leadership.

Build global competence

Asian companies must help leaders gain a broader, holistic view of other cultures if they are to thrive as businesses become more globalized. Asian leaders need to increasingly be exposed to different cultures and work styles if they are to assume a greater role on the world stage. Companies can support this exposure by committing resources to give high-potential leaders breakthrough experiences across multiple geographies. Some Asian leaders are receiving recognition for their contributions in mission-critical positions in large corporations, which is a powerful motivator for emerging leaders in Asia.

The creation of the ASEAN Economic Community, which facilitates cooperation and transfer across companies in the region, anticipated the need for cross-fertilizing of ideas and exposure. Many of Gallup's clients in Asia work across multiple locations. These companies realize that their leaders must understand different cultures and ways of working so they can take advantage of these differences to add value to their organizations.

Local and multinational companies based in Asia have typically relied on importing talent from outside the region. The practice of "parachuting" expatriates -- leaders hired from overseas -- will diminish as companies begin grooming their own emerging leaders and positioning them for success. This will also create a level playing field for these leaders. Emphasizing meritocracy -- balanced with sensitivity for and appreciation of the unique contributions arising from different cultural backgrounds -- will be a great step forward in identifying and grooming the next generation of Asian leaders.

The future of Asian leadership

It is time for a new focus on what true leadership is, one informed by what we've learned from the recent economic crisis. As Aung San Suu Kyi said, "The true development of human beings involves much more than mere economic growth. At its heart, there must be a sense of empowerment and inner fulfillment." A great leader is one under whom many leaders emerge, rather than the one whom many follow.

Asian companies are on the threshold of a new world, one to which they will contribute at a much higher level. As Asia's role in the global social, economic, and political landscape becomes increasingly important, its leaders will be called on to navigate the challenges ahead of them in this landmark decade. Will they be ready?

Vibhas Ratanjee, a Senior Practice Expert, is based in Gallup's Singapore office.
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