Premises for successful leadership: How Culture influences leaders

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Although historically leadership styles between Western and Chinese cultures have been viewed as quite different, both have been evolving and signs of convergence are emerging.

Concepts of Leadership

Therefore, the concept of leadership has been modified over time and could be seen as a holistic approach, instead of dependent on cultural settings. There is an abundance of past research seeking to understand and compare leadership styles in Chinese and Western cultural settings. A recent review of such research, conducted by Professor Peter King Beijing University of Technology and Dr Wei Zhang Beijing University of International Business and Economics explored the changing landscape of leadership in the context of these two cultures.

The overall purpose of this research was to identify the differences and similarities between Chinese and Western leadership approaches, and to determine if one or the other is more compatible with contemporary society. The research is based on different studies from peer-reviewed publications, which were examined to identify leadership approaches used in China and the West.

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Publications were selected based on their use of the keywords - leadership, Chinese leadership and Chinese culture. The list then further refined to only studies that included leadership attributes that were comparable between Chinese and Western cultures. Attributes of leadership could include roles, qualities and treatment of subordinates.

There was a mixture of publications focused on either just Western or Chinese leadership principles, as well as publications that compared the two. King and Zhang felt that studies of Chinese leadership prior to this time would have been more reflective of political, rather than business, principles of leadership and therefore less comparable to studies of Western leadership.

Shaping Culture in Leadership

The review revealed that Western leadership principles have focused on elements such as profit generation, long term future planning, human relationships and strategic planning. Workers were traditionally seen as impersonal components of production, and management theories prioritised achievement of objectives and maintaining command. More recent approaches have emphasised the value of respecting employees, valuing their contribution and promoting their career development.

Leadership: Beyond the Western Model

This shift towards mutual respect is closely aligned to the Chinese principle of interactional respect. Ancient Chinese philosophy is firmly entrenched in traditional Chinese leadership, with a strong focus on improving employees through personal development. Other elements of Chinese leadership principles include assuming the role of inspirational character, leading by example in terms of promoting equality, simple living and harmony with nature and others.

The researchers found that Chinese workplaces had evolved concepts of leadership by integrating methods from Western management approaches, through education abroad and being exposed to Western organisations in China. The researchers also identified that leadership paradigms in the West are changing, with a growing emphasis on more humanistic elements of leadership. This concept is closely related to traditional Chinese values such as incorruptibility, sense of shame and morality.

King and Zhang believe this shift is due to an increasing focus worldwide on human rights, which will continue to place pressure on traditional Western management principles to evolve in response. The one attribute of leadership that was found to be universal between both cultures was that economic benefits were the primary focus of leaders. There were still differences, however, in how this focus was influenced by the relationship between a leader and employees.


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King and Zhang suggest that the convergence of leadership principles between Western and Chinese cultures will ultimately improve the effectiveness and efficiency of leaders and businesses across both cultures. Chinese businesses will benefit from an increased focus on efficiency and innovation, while Western businesses will benefit from improved labour relations and organisational commitment.

King and Zhang argue that attempting to classify leadership into hierarchies or structures is not appropriate due to the large variation of roles and characteristics leaders must fulfil. The authors highlight that effective leadership requires the application of a blend of skills and insights, and that the best blend is reflective of the particular situation in which leadership is being applied. Instead, King and Zhang suggest a universal perspective of leadership could bring together all the attributes of leadership from various cultures and philosophies, where the combination of these attributes can be modified as necessary to suit different situations.

However, this is not to suggest leadership in these two cultures is now the same.

The implications for managers in both Western and Chinese environments is that there is acceptance of a broader range of leadership skills or principles recognised as effective. An Anthropological View Culture has long been the purview of anthropologists, but oddly, there are no previously published books that I can think of that offer an anthropological perspective on corporate culture and change.


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  • The purpose of these perks is, of course, to encourage employees to spend more time working productively, and less time managing their personal lives. It elevates these goodies to the next level, satisfying not only employee needs, but also their wants, with first-class live entertainment, boozy parties, on-campus housing, a sense of community and social purpose, and even, dare I say, a dollop of joy. Yet the novel is not an anti-technology, anti-business diatribe. It is a premonitory tale about the potential consequences of well-intentioned corporate cultures run amok.

    Eggers calls attention to the fine line between the compellingly powerful cultures found at places like Menlo Innovations, on the one hand, and the 21st-century equivalent of the corporate paternalism that spawned company towns and captive workforces a century or so ago, on the other. Although fictional, The Circle is the best business book of the year about corporate culture because it raises ethical and philosophical questions that are not, and cannot safely be, raised in many companies—and not just high-tech ones.

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    Tanveer, your way of seeing corporate change is mind boggling since I worked in that world. I almost want to hang up my hat! But knowing there are millions seeking that same incredible ONE position!!! Have faith will travel. Great post! MicheleElys: Tanveer is skating to where the puck is going to be. Unfortunately not a whole lot of folks out there know how to skate. Jim, First thank you for getting my name right!!! And I am wiling to learn to skate, if I can ride Arabian horses, I can skate.