For many years, the West has been the apparent unchallenged leader in thinking about business. As globalization has increased, Western ideas have been adopted with enthusiasm and energy in both emerging and developed markets worldwide.
But in the same way that Japanese success led to an infusion of ideas in the 1980s and 1990s (such as quality, teamwork, and lean manufacturing), it is inevitable that China's growth will again challenge this hegemony and bring another Eastern perspective to our thinking. The one area of thinking that will be most influenced is leadership.
Setting the stage
One company that is approaching leadership differently is Lenovo, whose roots are in China. The company is the product of a unique merger resulting from the Lenovo Group--China's top PC maker--buying IBM's PC Division in 2005. The merger produced a Chinese-heritage global company with significant operations worldwide.
To thrive in the constantly changing technology industry, Lenovo faced the challenge of building a consistent leadership ethos in its young culture. Part of Lenovo's response was to initiate a global manager development program in partnership with Bridge, a transformational leadership consultancy with roots in social entrepreneurship.
The two-day program, Managing@Lenovo, targeted all of Lenovo's managers globally. Its design naturally had Eastern and Western elements, but the remarkable impact of the program provided intriguing insights and prompted further inquiry into ways leadership ideas might evolve.
During the past 18 months, more than 1,000 managers have participated in Managing@ Lenovo in locations across the United States, Europe, China, India, South America, and Japan.
This article is the result of a series of 24 interviews conducted in late 2012 with recent program participants, executive-level sponsors, HR business partners, and program designers. In each interview we sought to understand where the program had maximum impact and its inter-relationship with Eastern and Western ideas of leadership.
The story that emerged provides fascinating insights into the balance of Eastern and Western leadership in China and the West. For example:
* All involved with the program articulated a perspective on leadership that blended Eastern and Western roots.
* Participants actively experimented with ideas from each heritage, reflecting cross-cultural applicability as well as Lenovo's culture.
* Program designers described the Lenovo-Bridge partnership as built on a model of collaboration that combined honesty with real friendship.
Across the interviews there were four recurring leadership themes (or pillars) that seemed to have a disproportionate impact on the attendees: balancing individualism with collectivism, blending results with personal empowerment, influencing remotely and cross-culturally, and transparency and a focus on action.
Pillar one: Balancing individualism with collectivism
One of the most commonly discussed differences between Western and Eastern ideas of leadership was the balance between individualism and collectivism. Eastern leaders often placed a much heavier emphasis on the collective, articulating high levels of commitment to their leader and the organization. They often saw Western approaches as being "less human" and more focused on "process" and "contract." (Many Chinese perspectives on leadership can be traced back to Confucian traditions with their deep focus on relationships and the five virtues of Ren, yi, li, zhi, and xin.)
By contrast, Western leaders talked more about the empowerment of the individual and tended to see traditional Eastern leadership as hierarchical and less flexible.
Since the IBM merger in which two strongly polarized cultures first came together, Lenovo has worked hard to forge a leadership philosophy that balances individualism and collectivism. …