Rethinking the East Asian Leadership Gap

The difficulty Western companies have identifying managers with leadership potential in East Asia says more about prevailing Western views of leadership than it does about available talent.

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Many western multinational corporations (MNCs) operating in East and Southeast Asia bemoan the lack of local leadership talent. Several recent surveys have pointed to the scarcity of regional talent as a growth limiting factor in the Far East. But fast emerging MNCs in Indonesia, South Korea, and Malaysia, as well as companies in China and Japan, don’t seem to have as much trouble finding or growing Asian leaders.

This raises important questions: Is there a shortage of suitable talent and leadership in these regions? Or should we examine the validity of the “global leader” yardstick? Based on our work with Western MNCs with operations in the Far East, these are questions such MNCs need to ask.

We began hearing about the “Asian leadership gap” several years ago when Western MNCs expressed interest in creating development programs for emerging leaders in Asia. We conducted hundreds of interviews with Asian executives, paying particular attention to the challenges of managing across cultures. The perception in Western MNCs was that management talent from East Asia often had difficulty demonstrating the leadership skills and competencies required to be successful MNC leaders.

Understanding the Gap

In this article, we address Western and Far Eastern cultural models broadly. We recognize that these are sweeping generalizations, in that wide cultural disparities exist even within the individual models. Yet we think broad distinctions are warranted by the underlying orientations. (The Far East tends to be more collectivist; the Western orientation is more individualist.)

East Asians pursuing careers in Western MNCs often have to make dramatic adjustments, not just in terms of acquiring linguistic and cultural fluency but also in terms of behavior. The requirements are so ambiguous that many East Asian managers aren’t sure where to begin, and few make it to C-suites of Western MNCs. In fact, the “Asian seats” on leadership teams are often filled by executives from the Indian subcontinent whose early exposure to English makes the adjustment easier for them. Indian-born executives have reached the top levels of technology giants such as Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., as well as nontech companies such as PepsiCo Inc. and Mastercard Inc.

Many of the communication qualities considered “leader-like” in Western businesses — a willingness to speak up, express unpopular views, and dominate conversations — run counter to principles that are widely valued in Far Eastern cultures.


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Comments (2)
Anna Pinsky
I really appreciate the way you have summarized the challenge of future potential leaders  in East Asia being overlooked by western MNCs. In my own experience the longer periods of silence left by Japanese executives in meetings can so often be incorrectly perceived by western peers or managers as a lack of interest or opinion.   
Great overview and particularly pertinent to what I have observed in Japan - thank you!
Dr. Enrico Velasco
Most recent scholarly reviews on trends concerning organizational behavior & culture as well as leadership specs show remarkable shift frm western to Asian characters; from corporate to personal; from market to client perspectives; from stockholder to inclusive approach.

Proof 1:
Emergence of new political leaders in Asia who abhors meddling from western philosophies. Duterte, Widono among others. 
Electorates of Trump and Macron and Brexit have convergent motives as their Asian counterparts who insist on real democratic, inclusive change from Wall St.-power play to whole of nation needs & wants.

Proof 2:
Asia equals and will remain the most potent global market; our millenials require Asian recipes. They delete interventional behavior. They relate well via personal linkages.

No brainer therefore to argue that the writers are read as western loyalistas.

My rx: lets validate our praesen tempus.


Dr. Enrico Velasco DBA EDEL (Cand.)