KEYnote/ Issues or People

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash


Manila, 6 June 2018 — Fusion food and a fusion of cultures, we are seeing it every day. Yet the differences between Asian and Western ways of thinking matter greatly for leaders today.

East and West

It happened in a leadership training years ago at the United Nations University in Tokyo. We were discussing how the philosophies of Asia can be contrasted with Western thinking to give leaders more choice in how to handle situations at work.

A little background. Our way of thinking is influenced by where we come from and by the language we adopt to use most. In my case, my mother tongue is Dutch, and I embraced English as my primary language to use in life and work. I dream in English too.

Wherever you come from, many people nowadays use English in a similar way, as a second language that is very important in the world today. If you are a student of leadership like me, that means that you are probably reading a lot of material about leadership in English, on the internet and in books. 

Language of Leadership

I estimate that 80% of the information about leadership in the English language is generated in North America. There is nothing wrong with that. However, it means that the knowledge we collect about leadership in English may have a pronounced influence from Western thinking. It's good to be aware of that, since we may be missing out on important other perspectives. 

Cultures in Asia, for example, have been influenced by other ways of thinking, anchored in Asian wisdom traditions, which are sometimes markedly different from those of the West. Importantly, there are not so many leadership materials from Asia yet that are written in English. So we need to work harder to get hold of them and learn from them.

Of course, by contrasting Asian with Western thinking on leadership, we run the risk of generalizations and oversimplification. That is dangerous. Also, we are reminded that a lot of cultural fusion is happening in our ever-more connected world. So we need to be careful with constructing contrasts. Yet it is true that different ways of thinking endure and still influence the way work is done. We need to be open to learning what they are and how we can use them in our leadership practice.

That is exactly what we were discussing in the leadership training in Tokyo, with participants from five continents, including an ambassador of an African country. So what contrasts did we explore? Well, I'd like to flag the most prominent one in this post. It is about objectifying vs. personifying, about giving priority to seeing problems through the lens of issues to be addressed or the lens of people to work with. It's about issues or people. 

People Come First

You might already see where I am going with this. In Asian leadership styles, people tend to come first. While in the West it is possible to say "don't take it personally when I say this," that is a very un-Asian thing to do because, in Asia, one could say that everything is personal. The subjects being discussed cannot be separated easily from the people discussing it.

In the business world today, strategy execution is a big challenge where many companies are underperforming. By looking at the work to be done as integrally connected with the people involved, the risk of failure in strategy execution can be greatly reduced. Some American CEOs learned this later on in their career when they discovered the importance of putting people first and center in business.

In my first overseas job in Asia, with UNICEF in Sri Lanka, I was lucky to find Farid Rahman, my director, willing to make time to mentor me on the job. I vividly remember his counsel to me that when it comes to solving problems or maintaining relationships in a project, the latter should always come first. People over issues.

Just last week, I was reminded of that when I heard Rina Guzman, an author and business director in the Philippines, say at a business networking meeting that "relationships matter most, business outcomes follow." This is a key point of learning in her book.

Relationships Are Central

Relationships are central to doing business in China. In its classical philosophy, the concept of Ren is very important. Not only does rén mean person (人). A word pronounced almost the same, yet written with a different character, means being human and benevolent (仁 ). See how this character is composed of 'person' and 'two'? The implication is that human relationships are highly valued and that we should treat each other with humanity, also at work. The teachings of Confucius elaborate on how to do this and are influential up to this day.

From a similar perspective, Budi is an important concept in Indonesian culture that incorporates both thinking and feeling. It suggests a notable lack of duality between considerations of what people think and how they feel and relate to each other. These are equally important and are treated as one. 

In Philippine culture, I learned how some psychological studies describe the concept of Kapwa, referring to a shared sense of inner self. This allows people to express that 'a part of me is in you' and vice versa, thereby dissolving rigid boundaries between I and You, and being more aware of a shared, collective We identity for us to work with.

In contrast, Western ways of thinking have over time developed a culture of expertly breaking down wholes into parts, together with a much more distinct sense of individuality and individual development. This is also expressed in the field of leadership studies.

Global Asian Leaders

Recently, however, international leadership researchers have become aware that the Asian preference to value people over issues may create an advantage when dealing with today's challenging business climate that is marked by unprecedented levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA).

In their 2018 study The Global Asian Leader, researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership, a well-known think tank, said: 

Asian leaders have significant advantages that often have superior execution skills and work ethic, demonstrate empathy and humility, are VUCA friendly and open to diversity much more than leaders from outside Asia.
— Center for Creative Leadership

The distinction between issues and people at work is also related to the difference between management and leadership, and the value of using a coaching style in leading change.

Management decisions often involve a reallocation of tasks and resources among people to produce better results within a certain framework of time.  Leadership, on the other hand, is focused on collectively influencing positive changes, and that cannot be done effectively without cultivating relationships among the people concerned. Effective leaders, therefore, tend to value people over issues.

We Are Asian

Coaching is a profession that developed in the mid-1990s at a time of heightened interest in finding more holistic approaches to solving management and leadership problems. Coaching also tends to focus more on growing the ability of people to solve issues themselves, rather than advising them how to solve the issues at hand. How to achieve success depends for the most part on people. People over issues.

When we wrapped up the training session in Tokyo after discussing the contrasts between Asian and Western approaches to leadership, the African ambassador stood up and stated: "We are Asian." Choosing to see people over issues appealed to him as the way for leaders to grow and become more effective.

People Over Issues

At any time, we have the choice of seeing problems at work through the lens of solving issues or improving how we work with people and build stronger relationships.

As for me, I learned that the key to success very often lies in seeing people over issues.

Relationships matter most, business outcomes follow.
— Rina Guzman