There is a great deal of leadership development work to be done in emerging markets, especially China. The work is demanding, reasonably lucrative, and fun. I find our time and counsel to be in demand with classrooms full of committed, motivated, and affable learners.
As a child of the Cold War, the concept of mutually assured destruction has lately become an almost quaint linguistic relic along the lines of duck and cover, made popular in civil defense films. The 1960s policy of allowing opposing sides to have enough weapons to annihilate each other to create a stalemate was intended to give us a nervously ambiguous peace between East and West.
Today’s chessboard pitting the former Soviet-bloc superpowers against the US and its allies is, for now, commerce. And the term I’ve coined to describe the engagement is Mutually Assured Success. It has an intriguing ring of counter-intuitive logic. If both sides are successful, where’s the competition? I’m not sure. But the stakes are different, and the work at hand is compelling.
China is so heavily invested in the U.S. economy that it’s in their interest for the U.S. to succeed and give them a pay-off. And, they’re determined to bring their economy to the next plateau, from low-end manufacturing and commodities to high-end durable goods, technology, and services. We want China to excel, even if it’s at our economic peril for the short term. And the end game is market domination. Despite what is sure to become ferocious competition, we need China as much as China needs us. In fact, right now, they own us.
This year, we’ve done business in the Middle East, South Africa, India, and China. What strikes me most about this up-tick in work is, as American leadership educators, we are in such demand. The leadership methods we’ve developed and exported are now considered a standard in business schools abroad.
How can Western leadership teachers and coaches engage in emerging markets, and what do they need to make the cut? When we take our executive education curricula to China, we find a few unexpected dynamics.
International executives are commonly advised to adapt to local customs, and in the case of U.S. business people, this usually means showing more respect, restraint and humility. But if you’re teaching leadership, you can check your acquiescence at the door.
My Chinese hosts and the European program staff expressed—in so many words—that they want undiluted Western leadership. They don’t want cultural sensitivity. It’s as if they’re saying, “We’re buying you, and that’s what we want. We expect you to be your best and to teach us the way you would teach Westerners.” Of course, I’m enough of a realist to think they’re looking for where we go wrong!
Bring plenty of stamina because the days are long. Any introverts in your ranks should be prepared to get out of their comfort zone because there are equal parts of relationship building outside the classroom.
Essentially, you get to be Western all day in class—with simultaneous translation at every step of the way—but in the evening, as you get scheduled for dinners that you didn’t know you were having, socializing is expected and you end up being “teacher” over meals and drinks. There’s a lot of pressure be “on” even when you’re off. We might assume that there’s some degree of pressure from higher ups for young executives to learn all they can in any and every way they can.
History shows that Asian nations are experienced at “adapt, adopt and improve” as they emulate successful business systems and improve them to define new levels of excellence and best practices. As China adopts Western leadership methodologies, they already benefit from jumping aboard after a great deal of evolution and advancement has occurred, from command-and-control to today’s participatory styles.
This, however, raises a challenge for the average Chinese executive who has grown up under the ultimate command-and-control, that of a once closed communist state.
Still, my students, the most promising in their organizations—admittedly, mostly upper middle class—are well educated and well traveled. So their Westernization makes a more democratic workplace a little more accessible than it might be to a less advantaged Chinese citizen or even older generations within the organization.
If you’re looking to expand your leadership practice to China, consider four points:
• They want Western. Don’t give them Western lite. European education is common among most people you will teach, and they’re eager to emulate how “we” do it.
• Feedback is the one area that might be challenging, because of language and cultural differences. Have a translator for every conversation. Some instruments, like FIRO-B, have been recently translated to Mandarin.
• Prepare for long days, but expect a lot of polite curiosity about your work outside of class. They do “want Western” but Eastern social customs still compel you to socialize as an extension of business.
• Remember “lead time” doesn’t translate well in China. The population of China is so much more vast than the US or European nations. This creates a sense of there’s always someone else who can do it now. So respond fast!
As a social scientist, I’m intrigued by what the Chinese version of Western leadership will become. Will they do to our human systems of organizations what Japan did to Henry Ford’s assembly line, making a new, more nimble and facile organization? Then, maybe we can learn from them.
Mutually Assured Success should appeal to any leadership professional as a means of improving global management and securing work for all of us. But can a focus on the principles of participatory leadership and learning organizations play a role in political and social dynamics? Is leadership development a democratizing process?
Whether your interest is international business or international leadership development, watch closely, because I expect the questions will be answered soon.