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Leadership in China: Recent studies on relationship building

Advances in Global Leadership

ISBN: 978-0-76230-723-4, eISBN: 978-1-84950-082-1

Publication date: 22 June 2001


There is no hope for creating a better world without a deeper scientific insight in the function of leadership and culture, and of other essentials of group life. Kurt Lewin, pioneering social psychologist Supposing is good, but finding out is better. Mark Twain If it becomes necessary to oppose a ruler, withstand him to his face, and don't try roundabout methods. Confucius Leadership is a special art and a precious contribution to employees, customers, shareholders and managers alike. But the challenge to lead effectively is formidable. Leaders must be credible and consistent, yet flexible and dynamic. They motivate and direct, yet listen carefully and develop a team that wants to do what needs to be done. Today they must often inspire people who are culturally diverse and geographically dispersed.

No wonder then that leadership often disappoints. Over 60% of U.S. employees consistently describe their boss as the biggest source of stress on the job (Hogan, Curphy & Hogan, 1994). Confident, popular leaders too often become frustrated, unwelcomed ones as hopes turn to blame.

Leadership has proved difficult for researchers too. Despite many models and thousands of studies, leadership knowledge is still preliminary and its impact on practice minor (Argyris, 1991; Kouzes & Posner, 1995). Research has shown the limitations of traditional notions that leadership is a simple characteristic of a person, perhaps genetically based, or that it involves a particular kind of action (Dickson, Hanges & Lord, 1999). Research in cross-cultural settings has reinforced the general conclusion that leaders must be flexible. They do not simply follow a script, but must assess the situation and act appropriately. However, specifying this contingency perspective is difficult. Leaders have a great many options in many different circumstances. Leaders must also be credible. How can flexibility and credibility both be attained?

Challenges for leading and for research are particularly daunting in cross-cultural settings, where stereotypes frustrate progress. Although Chinese employees have told us about how they have come to respect and learn a great deal from their Japanese and Western managers, others have complained bitterly about their managers' aloofness and condescension (Wong, Sonoda & Tjosvold, 1999). Western-trained managers in China are often praised for openness, but condemned for insensitivity.

Research on leadership in China has considerable potential for it confronts stereotypes that frustrate leadership practice and research, and can identify underlying elements of effective leading. Our research is a beginning and it shows that researchers can cut through these stereotypes to theorize how one can manage effectively in a culture as discrepant from the American culture as is the Chinese culture. We have found that open-minded, two-way relationships contribute significantly to successful leadership in the East as well as in the West. Leadership is not simply a characteristic of one person but developed by managers and employees together. Our research also demonstrates the value of using the theory of cooperation and competition to identify the nature of these relationships. This elegant theory suggests powerful ways to lead and build leadership capabilities.

The third major contribution of our research is the demonstration of how Chinese values can contribute to successful leadership. Although Chinese cultural values are often thought to impede the development of an empowered workforce, our studies suggest how, when appropriately expressed, they promote effective contemporary leadership.

This chapter has five parts. It begins with a description of the challenges of leading and studying leadership in China. It then outlines the theory of cooperation and competition and describes our field and experimental research findings using this theory. The fourth section discusses how Chinese values and cognitive style can promote productive, open-minded relationships between managers and employees. The final section suggests major procedures to apply research knowledge to strengthen leadership in China.


Tjosvold, D. and Hui, C. (2001), "Leadership in China: Recent studies on relationship building", Advances in Global Leadership (Advances in Global Leadership, Vol. 2), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 127-151.



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Copyright © 2001, Emerald Group Publishing Limited