Editor’s Note: Have you ever  noticed a Chinese student being very quiet in a meeting? If so, have you wondered why? Do they not have anything to say or has their their culture shaped their behavior?  It’s possible that the Chinese view of leadership has influenced how they interact in a team setting. The article explains the Chinese characteristics of leadership, and the values that dictate these characteristics. 

Good leadership is essential to any successful government, business, and ministry. How can leaders be more effective in God’s ministry? Understanding leadership style in China is crucial to help developing effective relationships with Chinese students and prepare them as servant leaders of God.

Harmony is the Key

If you watch Chinese news on TV, the word “harmony” is often uttered. In China, the concept of “harmony” is one of the highest Confucian values, meaning “finding the right balance in different situations in order to obtain peace and happiness.” [1] The Chinese perspective on leadership is also entrenched in the Confucian philosophy of harmony. Specifically, a strong Chinese leader should be able to create a harmonious working environment and promote a good relationship among team members. In harmonious working environment, team members are often expected to work together peacefully and rarely deal with any conflict at the workplace. Scholar Wei and Li explained this “harmonious relationships” among the teams: “This kind of harmonious ambiance potentially facilitates mutual understanding and mutual tolerance, and encourages peaceful interaction and collaboration. Whether this relationship arrives at “surface harmony” or “genuine harmony,” breaking a harmonious relationship is considered a move of high risk.”[2]

Hierarchical Orders

Some researchers stated that, “in the Chinese context, harmony in the workplace is achieved through the culturally-inherent hierarchical ordering.” [3] This idea suggests that there is a clear distinction between leaders and team members, meaning everyone in the team has a appropriate position – boss is the boss, team members are the followers. Leaders are often expected to practice authority while people they lead are to practice obedience without questioning the leadership much. The belief is that in order helps bringing harmony to the workplace, everyone should play their role accordingly. For example, in schools, Chinese students are encouraged not to question or challenge their teachers directly, especially in public, for that will hurt the teachers’ “faces.” Even students disagree with what the teacher says in class, they may not argue or directly express their opposition.

Have It All Together

In light of the cultural expectations of leadership mentioned above, Chinese leaders often shared similar characteristics like: authoritative, older ages, serving in the workplace for more years, and well-connected, etc. Different from the idea of “servant leadership” or “empowering leadership,” the leaders sometimes are expected to “have it all together.” Vulnerability is a rare trait among the traditional Chinese leaders. For example, many companies here in the U.S. emphasizes on the importance of giving feedback or 360 reviews. In a traditional Chinese company, there is usually very limited feedback from the staff to their bosses.

What then can we apply to how we lead Chinese students or to involve them in leadership? Here are few suggestions:

  • Intentionally encouraging students to speak up in small group. Sometimes it helps if you directly call on a student’s name and invite him or her to share her thoughts.
  • Model vulnerability and humility as a leader. It can be a powerful experience for them to see how leaders are also imperfect and can be used by God. Your vulnerability would likely to help them to be vulnerable with you.
  • Empower students to lead with their giftings. As some students might still hold the traditional view of leadership that they might not feel “qualified” to lead because of the age or lack of experiences, it might take time for them to feel comfortable to lead. Slowly involve them in leadership according to their giftings and continue affirming them as they take the steps of faith to lead.

Recent Changes

Since opening up to foreign trade and investment in 1979, China has been among the world’s fastest-growing economics. Chinese leadership style has also evolved in recent years. [3] From my recent interning experience in China, my leader was very good at team building by encouraging open communication, listening to our opinions and always saying “thank you” to us. In a recent survey, the three skills found in Chinese leadership were also more similar to the Western perspectives: abilities to reframe, transcend, and listen.

Perhaps the best leadership style one can learn from is the way Jesus modeled for us in the Bible. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26–28).

Thoughts to Ponder

What are some challenges you have faced while involve Chinese students to leadership?

What are some practical ways to help you encourage Chinese students to take on leadership?

[1] Eva Müller (Author), 2012, The Meaning of Harmony in China and its Importance in Business Life, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/296059

[2]WEI Xiaohong, LI Qingyuan. (2013) The Confucian Value of Harmony and its Influence on Chinese Social Interaction. Cross-Cultural Communication
Vol. 9, No. 1, 2013, pp. 60-66. DOI:10.3968/j.ccc.1923670020130901.12018

[3] Lau, Elaine, W. K. (2012, August). A study of effective leadership in the Chinese context. Paper presented at the Academy of Management 2012 Annual Meeting, Boston, MA

[3] Cheng Zhu, What We All Can Learn From China’s Business Leaders. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/2011/01/24/china-america-business-lessons-leadership-managing-ccl.html#64318bf8355e