Farmers Resting

Chinese History & Culture

Chinese Leadership: Moving from Classical to Contemporary

Chinese Leadership: Moving from Classical to Contemporary, by Dr. Sheh, Seow Wah. Singapore: Times Media Private Limited (www.timeson.com.sg/te). 2003. ISBN 981-232-548-4. Paper. 174 pages, including guidelines for further research, appendices, and a bibliography.

D
espite very poor writing, this book makes a major contribution to our understanding of Chinese leadership, both ancient and modern, and repays careful and repeated reading.

Drawing from extensive studies in Chinese history, the Chinese classics, and modern leadership theory, plus his own careful surveys, the author provides us with information and insights that benefit from a variety of traditions and viewpoints, producing guidelines for modern Chinese leaders. Along the way, he offers the Western reader not only an education in the best of Chinese leadership theory and practice, but some quite useful principles for success in today’s changing world.

Part One, Chinese Cultural Values and Chinese Organizations, introduces the basic concepts and anticipates the author’s conclusions. After a two-page (!) survey of Chinese history, he identifies several Chinese cultural values, which have sprung from Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism to make “the Chinese way of life intensely practical as well as philosophical.”

Confucian humanism, Taoist naturalism, and Buddhist spirituality fused in Neo-Confucianism, the “dominant system that remains the major influence in the [sic] Chinese thinking.” Chinese values can be further studied using the categories of social structure, familism, inter-personal relationships, and basic assumptions. A focus on the family leads to a stable society in which each member seeks to glorify the family name by working diligently while remaining frugal, sacrificing personal interests for those of the larger family unit.

Inter-personal relationships depend on the observance of li, or propriety (etiquette), in which hostility towards elders is suppressed, conflict is avoided, harmony is sought, aggression is disdained, and “face” must be gained and saved. To develop and maintain a good name for himself and his family, the Chinese individual strives for excellence and public recognition, always aware that his performance is being evaluated by a highly-judgmental community.

Basic assumptions include the conviction that everything is related to everything else; one’s destiny is predestined; and time works in a circular fashion. The Chinese entrepreneur expects both good times and bad, and hopes to pass on his business to his heirs for generations to follow.

Within such an environment, Chinese leadership style is characterized by “centralized decision-making, low structuring of activities [i.e., unclear job descriptions, lines of authority, and communication], paternalistic style of leadership, strong emphasis on collectivism and group behavior and strong family managerial roles and ownership.” The Chinese leader runs his business like a family, seeking to gain wealth and status as sources of power, but also caring for members of the family, even if they are not fully deserving (“nepotism”). He frugally husbands limited resources and develops a web of relationships (guanxi) that will expand the reach of his influence and capacity.

Part Two fills out this picture of the Chinese leader by first surveying notable rulers in Chinese history, then examining the main approaches to leadership expressed in the classics. We are not surprised to learn that emperors are rated by their ability to seize and retain power; unify the nation; and rule by moral example and wise choice of subordinates. Unscrupulous methods can be forgiven if the nation as a whole benefits from strong leadership.

The exposition of the principal philosophical traditions in classical Chinese literature takes up much of the book, and provides essential background for anyone seeking to understand the Chinese mind set. It’s basically a short course in early – and still influential - Chinese thought. The humanistic approach is found in Confucius and Mencius; the legalist scheme in Han Fei Tzu; the naturalistic in Lao Tzu and Chang Tzu; and the strategic school of thought in Sun Tzu and Sun Pin.

Westerners can derive great benefit from a careful study of the best in Chinese leadership theory as found in these classical writers. These include an emphasis upon inter-personal relationships; harmony; persistence; recognizing trends and working with, rather than against, them; a sober awareness of one’s present and potential “enemies”; and long-term planning. Most important, leaders must set an example not only of competence but of outstanding moral character if they are to win and keep the respect and loyalty of their followers.

Finally, earlier findings are summarized in part Three: The Chinese Transformational Leader, in which Chinese organizations and managerial practices are supplemented by a study of behavioral attributes found in successful leaders. Here the business focus of the book comes to the fore, as the author diagnoses both the strengths of traditional Chinese leadership styles and also shows what changes must be made in order for Chinese companies to compete successfully in the globalized economy of the 21st century.

Those familiar with Chinese organizations will agree that they are often harmed by high-handed, authoritarian leadership; micro-management by the person at the top; unclear roles and rules; favoritism; fierce competition among subordinates; and poor communication, especially from the bottom to the top. Dr. Sheh shows how all these faults must be overcome for Chinese businesses to operate successfully, but Christians will immediately see how the same changes would benefit Chinese churches.

In short, I heartily recommend Chinese Leadership for all who relate to Chinese, and including Chinese Christian leaders. Although the reader must contend with countless and very obtrusive grammatical and vocabulary mistakes, effort expended on mastering the content of the volume will pay rich dividends. Western Christians have a lot to learn, not only about their Chinese colleagues, but about leadership itself, from the rich tradition of Chinese thinkers and leaders.