Contextualising Leadership for a Borderless Business World – Part 1
It is time we started questioning long-standing assumptions about the leadership attributes and behaviours needed to be successful in Asia
In a number of my early intercultural communication programs through the 1990s, I focused on ensuring my Asian participants learnt the importance of assertiveness – in its traditional, Western shape. I would make them practice it by putting them in ‘pressure cooker’ situations and having them speak up. In my programs for ‘Westerners,’ I would have them practice strategies to make their Asian colleagues speak up. Saying exactly what you think – in words – was (and largely still is) held up as one of the first rules of good communication.
I changed my approach many years ago, moving away from the idea that verbal expression is the only valid, or even universally effective, means of communication.
This morning, seeing a well-intentioned motivational poster on a social media site reinforced for me how these ideas are still being perpetuated. The poster simply says: ‘Learn to say No without explaining yourself’. Just one of the seemingly harmless and ‘therapeutic’ bits of self-help advice we see every day; something that slipped from academic discourse into public acceptance and we have been assuming is part of the self-mastery baseline. Explanations are for people-pleasing (which, we are constantly told, is an unworthy aim if it doesn’t match our own needs perfectly – instantly assuming that suspending our own needs, even temporarily, is an unwelcome state of being and is perceived so in all parts of the world!)
Pity is, we seldom pause and question these assumptions, allowing them to shape our expectations of leaders, and of ourselves, in cultures where these ideas are not naturally prevalent. The poster took me back to the reasons why my own approach underwent a paradigm shift so many years ago.
In the current example, saying No is an extremely culture-sensitive issue – both in content and form. Therefore, while the idea that an effective No is an indispensable part of a leader’s toolkit might be universally relevant around the world, the acceptable form and style differ across cultural lines. Saying No without explanation might form a justifiable part of any Western model of assertiveness, yet, as most Asians intuitively know, it probably would not find a spot in an indigenously Asian framework. Where it might signal self-mastery in the West, in most of Asia it will commonly be construed as disrespectful – to people and to situations. Yet, we have always assumed that it must work in Asia the way it has worked in the West.
A large part of my research over the past decade has focused on what works and what does not work – and why – when Western leadership theories are applied in an Asian context. One of my conclusions is that there is an urgent need to contextualise leadership attributes and behaviours for a borderless business world. My research has resulted in the BorderlessLeadership™ Model.
For instance, in the above example, a staple of our East/West cross-cultural interventions – training leaders on reading indirect and non-verbal cues – could do with elevation to a key reference point rather than constituting the ‘now for something light’ element of the program that it still largely is.
On their part, there is a need for Asian leaders to embrace their own culture-driven response patterns and build on these strengths, rather than perceiving them as weaknesses.