Updated: November 9, 2010 15:24 IST

Understanding Chinese leadership traits

D. Murali
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Business Leadership in China
Business Leadership in China

One leadership trait that is rarely heard in the West but often mentioned in China is ‘wu,’ meaning ‘very deep insight,’ writes Frank T. Gallo in the revised edition of ‘Business Leadership in China’ (

Holistic view

Explaining that wu refers to a holistic view, the author cites the interpretation by Fang Yulan, an authority in Chinese culture, that for a person with a high level of wu, ‘personal appearance will be decorous; speech should be orderly; vision should be clear; hearing, distinct; and thought, profound.’

Another apt quote in the book is of Li Jianbo of Cisco (China) that the Chinese leader uses wu to think something through to the core. “Chinese believe that to make a decision, you really need to see through the outside into the core. You can only do this with wu.”

Gallo reminds Western leaders in China to be aware that there is an expectation by their Chinese counterparts and employees that they do not use wu. “If one is seen as making rash judgments and decisions without giving them much thought, as Western leaders often do, Chinese employees will see this negatively.”

Avoidance of extremes

What comes next in the list of ‘unique leadership traits in China’ is ‘zhong yong,’ the Confucian principle of avoiding extremes, whereby a leader should move to the centre of an issue, rather than decide for or against it.

This is very different from the Western leader, who is taught to take a strong position, distinguishes Guo Xin of Mercer Consulting in Beijing, one of the interviewees for the book. “Chinese leaders are quiet. They do not try to be individually recognised like the Western leader. A really good leader might not even want to be noticed.”

When Westerners take firm position on an issue, especially when others feel that all sides were not fully considered, the Chinese may see the Western leader as shallow in thinking, warns Gallo. “Westerners are drivers. They drive people, drive goals, and drive change. This is often viewed by the Chinese as being too aggressive. We see many Western leaders violating the principle of zhong yong,” rues Li Jianbo. He advises leaders that pushing too hard gets a rebound in response.

“You don’t push water to you. You build a canal. Water will flow to you when the canal is ready. Chinese leaders will make lots of preparation before making a move. It might involve taking two steps forward and then one step backward.”


Unlike as in the West, the Chinese leader may choose to be indirect in communication, one learns. “Indirectness implies thoughtfulness. It is also a safe course, as it is easier to renege on an indirect action than a more clearly defined, direct one,” observes the author. Interestingly, “it is also considered a trait of subordinates to ‘guess’ what the leader is thinking.”

This trait, according to Shi Lan of Towers Perrin, Beijing, cited in the book, is related to the leader’s concern with making a public mistake, especially in state-owned enterprises. He traces this phenomenon to the saying ‘tao guang yang hui,’ meaning that you hide your capabilities and just don’t let others know what you know.

This practice is not at all encouraged in multinational firms, but the Chinese practice has been infused into managers and leaders for a long time, frets Shi. “This is also why we Chinese are often accused of not being innovative or risk-taking. The more you show of yourself publicly, the more likely you can be accused of making a mistake.”

Educative read.


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