By Ruth Chau • November 9, 2015

leadership in china: the convergence of east and west

As a Guest Contributor this week on the AIIR Executive Coaching Blog, Doctoral Candidate Ruth Chau discusses the differences and similarities in views on leadership between China and the West.

Have you ever felt like, despite communicating with the same words, you and your coachee are speaking different languages? Although this disconnect in communication can feel just as abrupt as that caused by a barrier of language, this breakdown in communication is often caused by something much different: the barrier of culture.

A key example of this barrier can be found in the many cultural differences that exist between Western and Chinese views of leadership. On the one hand, Western leadership tends to emphasize the achievement of objectives, such as profit generation, strategic planning or talent preservation. While human relationship is recognized as important in Western culture, it is sometimes viewed as a means to an end – an impersonal component enabling the completion of the process. In contrast, the Chinese perspective on leadership is entrenched in Ancient Chinese philosophy. As a result, it is based on the belief that one cannot lead without followers. Therefore, the first and foremost duty of a leader is to take care of and develop his or her followers, believing that one’s followers would in turn affect the ability and reputation of the leader. Based on this belief, leaders must focus on continuous self-improvement, which can be done through self-reflection and distancing from temptations. In doing so, the leader leads through example, inspires his or her employees, and ensures that his or her own decisions are made for the good of the company, not for personal gain.

Since the mid-20th century however, Chinese and Western paradigms of leadership have been changing, each slowly converging toward the other. In fact, over the last several years, there has been increasing focus in Western culture on the value of employees as individuals, rather than as parts of a machine. Programs based on recognizing employees’ contribution and individualized career development have also become increasingly common. As this shift towards the Chinese principle of mutual respect between leader and followers has occurred in the West, the Chinese societal view on what makes a person a leader has also changed. While personal qualities that reflect a high level of ethical and moral standards are still seen as socially desirable, there is an increasing appreciation for leaders who focus on generating concrete business gains, such as market share and revenue. This shift towards the Western perspective of achieving tactical and strategic objectives started with the opening of Chinese market in the 1950s and continues as China becomes more influenced by the rest of the world.

While the Western world offers many different models to guide leadership development, China is in a relatively early stage in this area of thinking. Consequently, there are few well-known or commonly-practiced modern Chinese leadership models. Instead, the literature that exists in Chinese tends to be in reference to Western leadership models. Interestingly, however, one model in particular tends to be referenced with great frequency: Transformational Leadership.

Transformational Leadership was proposed by James MacGregor Burns in the 1970s, and has 5 major components: (1) Individualized Consideration, (2) Intellectual Stimulation, (3) Inspirational Motivation, (4) Idealized Influence – Attribute and (5) Idealized Influence – Behavior. Based on this model, a Transformational leader is one who meets each follower at his or her developmental level. The leader recognizes and acknowledges the follower’s strength. At the same time, the follower is given opportunities and resources to counter weaknesses and to continue personal growth. The leader models the desired internal attributes and external observable behaviors for the follower, therefore becoming a source of inspiration and motivation. Under the influence of a transformational leader, followers embark on personal journeys to eventually become leaders themselves.  

Based on this understanding,  it is clear that Transformational Leadership is becoming known to Chinese companies based on the extant literature, despite the relatively new practice of planned leadership development in China. Furthermore, the components of this model have been shown to have positive effects on the effectiveness of Chinese businesses. Some of these positive effects include: loyalty to the company, talent preservation, creativity and team performance (Gao, Bai & Shi, 2011; Li, 2015; Sun, Xu & Shang, 2014).

This model’s popularity with Chinese businesses is not surprising. In Burns’ words, Transformational Leadership can be seen when “leaders and followers make each other advance to a higher level of morality and motivation.” This emphasis on reaching for higher moral standards and the reciprocal relationship between leaders and followers echo the ancient Chinese philosophical belief that, while followers are obligated towards their leaders, leaders also have duties to fulfill in taking care of the followers.

In light of this deeper connection, the Transformational Leadership model may be a useful tool for coaches and consultants working with Chinese leaders. Since the Chinese view on leadership is so entrenched in its history and philosophy, it may be difficult forsomeone not familiar with these subjects to explain the importance of certain attributes in a way that holds meaning for the client. As a result, the Transformational Leadership model may be a useful tool in bridging that gap, as it provides a systematic view on values already known to and treasured by the client. (Gao, Bai & Shi, 2011; Li, 2015; Sun, Xu & Shang, 2014).


Gao, F., Bai, S., & Shi, K. (2011). The Effects of Transformational Leadership in Chinese Family Business How Should Family Business Lead Their Family Employees? International Journal of Trade, Economics and Finance IJTEF, 2(3), 218-224.

Li, C., Zhao, H., & Begley, T. M. (2015). Transformational leadership dimensions and employee creativity in China: A cross-level analysis. Journal Of Business Research, 68(6), 1149-1156. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2014.11.009

Sun, W., Xu, A., & Shang, Y. (2014). Transformational leadership, team climate, and team performance within the NPD team: Evidence from China. Asia Pacific Journal Of Management,31(1), 127-147. doi:10.1007/s10490-012-9327-3`