In a rapidly globalizing world, we need a strong appreciation of the subtle, but important, cultural differences between leadership styles between the east and the west.
Nearly every aspect of our life at HBS has crossed paths with a reference to leadership. We are all discovering its meaning in our own unique ways. As part of my own quest, I reached out to RC students last semester, requesting responses to a simple poll about what they seek in their leaders, in their professional lives.
A simple poll
This poll was structured as a set of 10 simple questions, each describing a pair of personality traits. Respondents were asked to rate the degree to which they would like their bosses to display each pair of traits. The ten sets of traits included in the poll were:
Calm, emotionally stable
Anxious, easily upset
Dependable, self-disciplined Disorganized, careless
Open to new experiences, complex Conventional, uncreative
Personality and leadership
These questions constitute a well-established psychological test to analyze human personality using the “Five Factor Model of Personality”. It identifies extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, conscientiousness and openness as the key dimensions of one’s personality.
Research has associated these factors with important leadership-related behavior. Agreeableness indicates interpersonal sensitivity; emotional stability has been linked to likeability; and conscientiousness represents task competence.
The poll responses are measured as values (x1, x2, . x5, y1, y2, . y5) ranging between 1 and 7, from lowest to highest preference.
Extroverted, enthusiastic (x1)
Reserved, quiet (y1)
Sympathetic, warm (x2)
Critical, quarrelsome (y2)
Calm, emotionally stable (x3)
Anxious, easily upset (y3)
Dependable, self-disciplined (x4) Disorganized, careless (y4)
Open to new experiences, complex (x5) Conventional, uncreative (y5)
The personality factors are “measured” based on a simple mathematical relationship between the pairs of traits.
Extraversion Average (x1 , 8 – y1)
Agreeableness Average (x2 , 8 – y2)
Emotional stability Average (x3 , 8 – y3)
Conscientiousness Average (x4 , 8 – y4)
Openness Average (x5 , 8 – y5)
Our first semester LEAD course introduced us to the warmth-competence framework of social perception. Using this poll, I was interested in understanding our leadership preferences within that framework. Existing research indicates that agreeableness and emotional stability are strong indicators of warmth, while conscientiousness is a known strong indicator of competence.
The poll was designed to understand differences in preferences across cultures. We received more than 150 responses from the RCs. Given the number of respondents from each region, data from two main groups was selected for analysis:
Asia: India, China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam (22 responses)
North America: USA and Canada (99 responses)
Each bar shows the average score for the factors given by respondents from the two groups. The most important observation here is that students from Asia, on average, rank warmth-related traits higher than did students from North America. Since each factor is ranked independently, it is also interesting that students from Asia have placed a relatively lower weight on competence.
This simple test validates an oft-discussed cultural difference between management and leadership styles in the east versus the west. Relationships play a strong role in the east, and task competence supersedes other aspects in the west.
This highlights an important challenge for all of us. Most of us will find ourselves interacting with people from opposite ends of the globe. Operating successfully in this environment may demand high performance on both warmth and competence. While we have had a few discussions about this in class, we need to develop ways to hone our ability to do so, while at school. HBS is international and a great place to hone one’s intercultural sensitivity and appreciation of cultural differences in leadership style. As we work together beyond the classroom, whether at student clubs, conferences or otherwise, a conscious effort to appreciate these differences, to practice this hybrid leadership style, to evaluate our behavior at present and share feedback, may form the foundation of our long-term success.
I must thank all the RCs who indulged me in this quest: filling out this poll, passing it on to their sections and reaching out to me to talk about it. Also, none of this would have been possible without the extensive encouragement and direction provided by Prof. Roy Chua.
Ankur is currently searching for a way to convert day dreams into food, drinks and dessert. His clone is an RC student in Section I.