Leaders Who Inspire Commitment

Tapping traditional Asian values can instill cross-cultural managerial capabilities.

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Recent research holds lessons for any company doing business in China: In a land where Confucianism originated over 2,000 years ago yet still exerts a major ethical and philosophical impact on the prevailing ­culture, managers who actively offer employees clear goals and rewards can strengthen organizational loyalty.

A study by Jean Lee, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore Business School, links two strands of past research: leader-focused and leader-follower studies. Lee’s goal in integrating these perspectives was to extend Western leadership research into a non-Western culture and to examine the perspectives’ combined effect on organizational commitment.

On the basis of her research, Lee recommends that leadership training for managers in China integrate aspects of the traditional philosophies of Chinese culture, such as Confucianism. Not a religion, she explains, Confucianism is a practical philosophy of human relationships and conduct that offers present-day managerial insights. At its core are self-cultivation (a predilection of Western culture) and harmonious human relations for the common good (a value that Western cultures emphasize to a lesser degree than Asian cultures).

To assess attitudes about leadership in China, Lee used the 1995 Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire Form 5X created by B.M Bass and B.J. Avolio, who proposed the full-range leadership model. This model features three dimensions: transformational leadership, characterized by individualized attention to workers, intellectual stimulation and inspirational motivation; transactional leadership, in which clear goals are set and accomplishment is rewarded; and laissez-faire leadership, in which little direction is offered. To study the leader-follower relationship, Lee used R.C. Liden and J.M. Maslyn’s 1998 LMX-MDM, with its 12-point scale that tests attributes such as affection, loyalty and professional respect. J.P. Meyer and N.J. Allen’s 1997 instrument was used to test organizational commitment. Questionnaires were sent to five pharmaceutical companies in China having 1,000 to 2,000 employees and several branches or subsidiaries. The final sample comprised 556 respondents.

For those familiar with the Confucian emphasis on duty to others and the collectivism of Chinese communism, the results may confirm anecdotal evidence. In China, the kind of leadership that fosters the highest level of organizational commitment, Lee says, emphasizes building relationships with followers. Confucianism holds that true leaders routinely demonstrate caring. This is consistent with Western transformational leadership, in which leaders work at earning followers’ affection and respect.

So Western managers need to recognize that, in China, the relationship comes before the task. Also, fulfilling social responsibilities (acting as a role model and taking action that benefits both the unit and the larger organization) is a prerequisite for filling high posts. Lee believes that some Western managers find the social-responsibility imperative intrudes too much on personal freedom, but it is an expectation in China.

Her finding that active, constructive leadership beats passive, corrective lead­ership confirms research done in other countries. Moreover, says Lee, active, constructive leadership leads to better leader-member exchange, which means that leaders and followers feel mutual affection and loyalty. Followers consider such leaders to be more deserving of professional respect and attribute greater job skills to them.

High-quality leader-follower relationships do not bloom overnight but are the result of long periods of cultivation. Leaders need to continuously inspire and motivate followers, and to do that in China, says Lee, it helps to begin with the Confucian recognition that the individual is inseparable from society. Managers need to model behavior that supports company goals and make decisions that benefit the group. In addition, Lee recommends that companies relax the current focus on quantitative business training in China and devote some resources to developing personal attributes, such as coaching and goal setting, which make leaders more effective in instigating organizational change and progress.

The 2003 report is Effects of Leader-Member Exchange on Leadership and Organizational Commitment — A Chinese Case. For further information, contact Lee at jeanlee@nus.edu.sg.

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