Asian business leaders are more creative and intuitive … more youthful and female, driven by optimism and confidence

January 28, 2019

Imagine Jack Ma in a room with Jeff Bezos talking about the future of retail. Or Elon Musk setting out to map the future alongside Masayoshi Son. They may have similar dreams and strategies, but their styles of thinking are likely to be quite different.

So do leadership styles from the East and West differ?

A variety of studies point to significant cultural differences. While the predominant leadership traits –such as personal integrity, confidence, future mindset, clear communication, and ability to inspire people – are almost typical everywhere, there are two areas of big difference: creativity and intuition.

  • 90% of Asian leaders believe creativity is important, compared with just 57% in Europe.
  • 85% of Asian leaders think intuition is important, compared to only 54% in Europe.

More generally, emerging market leaders could typically be described as “modernist” with an emphasis on intuition and creativity, and also on coaching, compared to more “traditionalist” leaders.

Of course, Asian leaders are mostly operating in high growth markets, with young consumers and immature competition, which will evolve over time. It is is therefore possible that styles will converge as Asian markets mature.

However given the much faster growth rates of their economies, it might be that leaders in emerging markets are gaining the confidence to stick with their own management approaches, what has been working for them – or that they have the agility to adapt to approaches that prove best suited to their fast-evolving local markets. A Grant Thornton study on Asian leadership finds that leaders of companies in the region are deliberately blending imported and home-grown management techniques and approaches to create a new “Asian Way” of leading, rather than copying and replacing.

Women are still on a long journey towards equality. Today, just 24% of senior business roles around the world are held by women, but the proportion of female CEOs is on the rise. Awareness is growing that diversity, of all sorts and in any walk of life, leads to better decisions and outcomes. There is increasing evidence that a more diverse workforce correlates with higher sales, business growth, return on invested capital, and return on equity. One recent study from China even finds that having more women on company boards reduces the incidence of fraud. Meanwhile, uniformity of background often yields uniformity of opinion and worse decisions. The pressure is on to make boardrooms and management ranks less “male and pale.”

It has often been claimed that a key way in which business women differ from business men is in their leadership styles, typically more democratic and participative. Studies also show that, as investors, women are more risk-averse and, at the household level, tend to invest a higher proportion of their earnings in their families and communities than men.

Looking across the world, women are more common in senior roles in companies in emerging markets – Eastern Europe, for example, as well as Southeast Asia. More female leaders typically correlates with more openness to using creativity and intuition – and also a higher value placed on the ability to delegate. In any case, these parts of the world, with their higher proportions of women in leadership, have a fair claim to be arriving sooner at the well-blended leadership style of the future.

Decision-making based on analytics may still denominate in big corporate Western markets, and certainly represents progress in many areas where managerial decisions have been made in the past on “gut feel.” But there are still many decisions in business that, either because they relate to future possibilities or because they involve softer trade-offs, can’t be reduced to data and calculations. One could argue that those are the very decisions – the ones requiring creativity and intuition – where leadership is most called for and tested. In a fast-moving, digitally-powered world, creativity and intuition could be the difference between getting ahead, and getting left behind.

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