Rethinking the East Asian leadership gap

23 June 2017

For a number of years, Western companies in East and Southeast Asia have complained about what they perceive to be a lack of suitable leadership talent to successfully lead MNCs in the region.  A research report from MIT suggests this ‘leadership gap’ may be due to culturally-driven notions of leadership. The report outlines the differences between Western and Far Eastern understandings of leadership. Far Eastern societies tend to be collectivist while Western ones tend to be individualist. This difference creates difficulties for East Asians as they have to make linguistic, cultural and behavioural adjustments when working in Western MNCs. The adjustment is made even more difficult due to ambiguous requirements in Western companies. Communication skills linked to leadership (as viewed by Western businesses) such as speaking up and dominating conversations are usually in conflict with Far Eastern cultures that value harmony, reflection and humility.

These obstacles mean that East Asian leaders often miss out on opportunities such as training and exposure and are constantly reminded of their ‘shortfalls’. However, those leaders that adopt Western leader characteristics can also face 'stereotype backlash' by violating other people’s expectations for them to act in a ‘culturally appropriate’ manner. This suggests that the leadership gap is not as widespread as portrayed by Western MNCs. Many Western MNCs rely on a list of competencies which reflect Western notions of leadership. This creates difficulties for Asian managers when competing for executive jobs in Western contexts. An important step in reducing the East Asian ‘leadership gap’ and creating diversity for further business growth is thus for Western MNCs to be more aware of the culture-specificity of their understandings of leadership.

Read the full article on the MIT Sloan website.

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