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Chinese Leadership - What's the Same and What has Changed
by Dr. Karen Otazo

After sixteen days in China, I left with two powerful reminders of my time there: a bad case of the flu and a new understanding of Chinese leadership styles. Twenty years ago, I lived in China and I've gone back regularly since then. This time I was part of a trade delegation of business, education and political leaders from Houston, Texas. We were able to meet with our counterparts in schools, government and business. We even met with the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) with whom I worked two decades ago as part of ARCO Oil and Gas Company.


Back then, I learned that the Chinese leadership ideal is that of a good and caring father or mother. Talking to CNOOC leaders recently, I found that this is still true. If you ask Chinese young people about leadership, they reflect on the lessons they learned in their childhoods from their parents -- their first leadership role models.

A parental ideal of leadership is also the Confucian view. Through this dominant philosophical system, the Chinese have been taught that a good boss cares for his or her work family while a good follower is loyal to a work parent and obeys him or her the way you would a father or mother. In fact, a good employee will work to make the boss look good and be successful. However, that ideal view of leaders and employees as family is waning in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Worldwide, the number one reason for employees to leave their jobs is their relationship with their bosses. In the late 1990's a survey of Chinese employees ranked how much they appreciated leaders from different nationalities. Surprisingly, Philippine leaders came out on top, while different nationalities of Chinese leaders got the lowest scores. What respondents talked about was how much it mattered when their bosses paid attention to them, their development and their careers. More caring was more important than more money.

As I talked with dozens of young people in Shanghai, Dalian and Beijing, I saw that some things haven't changed in terms of the expectations they have of their leaders. Twenty years ago there was, as always, an emphasis on career advancement. Then, as now, husbands and wives often lived apart in different cities or geographic locations. In the past, that was so because of residence restrictions.
Nowadays it is often more about pursuing a career. Years ago the Chinese were just learning about profit and business planning. Now they are eager for the government to be business friendly so that they can all prosper. As always they're eager to learn. Leaders who coach and mentor them are much appreciated.

What has changed is how high and how fast these folks expect to move and progress. China is now like a big learning laboratory. The folks who went away are coming back. Fu Chengyu, the president of CNOOC, is one of them. Mr. Fu holds a masters degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Southern California. He got his leadership and management experience when, earlier in his career, he led the joint management committee overseeing joint ventures with BP (Originally started by ARCO) and Shell. Of course, his English is excellent. He has high ambitions, and well he should. Although he has suffered some disappointments - he is chagrined that his company's bid for Unocal was rebuffed by political pressures in the US -- the lessons of experience have helped him, and others are taking note. Leaders in even state-owned industries are going to management and leadership programs and academic institutions in Asia and the west. They are eager to turn their old institutions and their start-ups into growing concerns.

As foreign connections have become more plentiful and easier for Chinese people to make, the nature of networking and guanxi, or relationships, there has changed. No longer will someone whisper that his or her uncle can turn your electricity off or on if you do business with them. And sadly, no longer do people eagerly take your business card in both hands and cherish the contact. There is more of an attitude of WIFFM, "what's in it for me."

 

 

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