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  • Tommy Chan, Ph.D., PCC

Coaching in Asia (CIA): Managerial Courage

Updated: Sep 1, 2018

"Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them." - Bruce Lee




The CIA insight this week is on managerial courage. Rather than delineating its behavioral traits and usage as a leadership competency in psychometric assessment that we could aptly google, this conversation focuses on discussing the need for more managerial courage among senior Asian business leaders in multinational corporations (MNCs).


This author borrows the courageous observation of the finance executive and Yale graduate, Ms. Stephanie Cheung. Her insightful opinion piece on senior Asian executives was published in South China Morning Post in Hong Kong on May 7, 2016. She helped name one of the biggest “White Elephants” in global and Asian boardrooms - the lack of Chinese-born CEOs in Fortune 500 companies internationally.


Ms. Cheung astutely stated that: "while observing various high-profile CEOs of global companies... Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive of America's PepsiCo, who was born in India; Joseph Jimenez, chief executive of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis - born in the US; Carlos Brito, chief executive of Belgium-based beer company Anheuser-Busch InBev - born in Brazil; Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, born in India; and Maureen Chiquet, the former global head of Chanel, the world's paramount luxury French brand, who hails from the US. This realization led me to a search for Chinese-born chief executives - in Hong Kong or the mainland (China) - leading global names. So far, I have drawn a blank..."

Among Fortune 500 companies, the number of senior East Asian business leaders is noticeably under-represented at the most senior ranks, given the increasingly weighted proportion of business performance and global revenues in Asia across regions.

This business psychologist-turned-coach postulates that one of the major underlying reasons for this is because of the relative lack of managerial courage displayed by senior Asian business leaders.


This present reality begs the question why and justifies a proper speculation and analysis of the etiology before real solutions could be found.

The lack of managerial courage reduces one's influence on configuring disruptive strategic directions, while inhibiting the ability to solve complex commercial problems with innovative ideas. Low managerial courage also reduces one's visibility in the organization as a key stakeholder.


Generally less contrarian and argumentative than their counterparts, Asian business leaders could be perceived to be less assertive and unyielding when pressed in diverse multinational settings. Growing up in Asian cultural environments that encourage more groupthink could prove challenging for some Asian business leaders to demonstrate, not necessarily not possessing, managerial courage. It could be more unnatural for some Asian business leaders to "stick to their guns" when facing opposing opinions of their international peers.

What are perhaps some of the underlying factors in accounting for this predicament from the point of view of Asian family dynamics and educational philosophies?


This challenge could derive from the difference between traditional Eastern and Western world views. Confucius philosophy, widely influential in Asia, highly values respect, conformity and harmony and is diametrically different from the Western presuppositions of Socratic reasoning and rational arguments to get to the truth of things. Thus, someone who is educated in the West may be implicitly encouraged to acquire the necessary skills to engage in heated debates, and therefore could be perceived as having more courage in group dynamics.


Some Asian cultural habits, practiced at least before the 60s and 70's, may illustrate why some Asian business leaders were raised in environments that are less conducive to develop managerial courage, as compared with their Western counterparts.


For instance, one could draw insights from observing how parents react when their toddlers fall and stumble in the public square. Some Asian parents could over-react and appear overly protective by showing verbal alarms and premature cuddling and calming of their crying child. However, Western parents may let their toddlers struggle and cry initially, but promptly encourage them to independently pick themselves up without cuing their children to be frightful.


While some Chinese parents tend to be obsessed about providing layers of warm clothing in cold weather for their children, Westerners sometimes unknowingly stretch their children's physical limits, and inadvertently build up their strengths, by not over-bundling them up.

In another contrast, some young Asian teenagers were not even allowed to cross the traffic on their own when their Western counterparts were encouraged to drive in their own vehicle at the age of 15 or 16! This makes a big difference in fostering self-efficacy, and likely courage between individuals in these two groups.


The cultural expectation of how long adult children live in their parents' home is another difference. While Asians are typically expected to live under their parents' roof until marriage, some Western families expect their children to become independent and leave the family home to forge their own livelihood after 21 or even 18. The cultural value of interdependence versus independence potentially poses challenges for some up-and-coming Asian business leaders to acquire skills necessary "to stand on their own feet" and to demonstrate autonomy and courage when facing threats.


The high emphasis on the value of formal education among Asian helps nurture generations of academically high-achieving Asian students. Yet, Asians do not necessarily end up in top corporate positions in MNCs. Street-smartness learned through stimulating play, social interactions and teamwork has been under-respected; whilst the significance of top academic achievements appears over-valued in preparing for the business arena among Asian families.


Other obvious factors that pose obstacles to build up managerial courage among Asian business leaders include: the lack of fluency in business English, subpar public speaking skills, neglect of the power of humor to build relationships, and a tendency to demean brainstorming, or sometimes sarcastically translated as "吹水" in Chinese. It literally means "blowing water" and implies futility. Without the counter-cultural spontaneity in free flowing "out-of-box" conversation and a freedom to let the mind to run wild to think on new solutions, Asian business leaders could be at risk of being less likely to develop courage to break away from the pack.


It is not unexpected to see the results of a very interesting study at the UC Berkeley which was broadcast in the CBS's 60 Minutes a few years ago. It demonstrates that Caucasian US students tend to think out loud and therefore typically receive higher grades in class participation versus their Asian-American classmates, despite their academic diligence and equal comprehension of the subject matter.


The last point on the dynamic difference between Asian and Western children and adolescents relates to the dichotomy of permissiveness versus restrictiveness. Hearing the word "no" or receiving rejection multiple times in developmental years obviously reduces one's propensity to take risks and to be courageous, when compared with someone who grew up in an environment in which one is "permitted" to make mistakes and safely learn from them. If one were to conduct an empirical study to examine the frequency of hearing the word "no" in formative years and managerial courage, there would be a statistically significant negative correlation between these two variables.


This author's anecdotal cross-cultural experience observes that Asian children and youths are generally more likely to hear the word "no" across the span of childhood, as compared with their Western peers. In other words, when future prospective Asian business leaders are excessively exposed to a more restrictive environment at school and in family as children, they would predictably display less managerial courage at work as adults.


At the risk of over-generalization, here are some key points of business intelligence on the CIA this week:

1) Foster managerial courage in executive coaching by asking clients open-ended, facilitative and hypothetical questions such as:

- If you were braver, how would you change your business decisions?

- What behavior would you show if you were to be more courageous in similar situations next time?

- How best would you balance calculated risk-taking decisions versus showing courage in this business scenario?

- What would actually happen if you fail?

2) Encourage stretch work assignments to build breath, cross-functional experiences and tolerance of ambiguity in coaching. Use the process to broaden clients' diverse interests in conversation and support them to hold engaging conversations by sometimes asking intelligent questions, despite lacking specific content knowledge.

3) Recommend sufficiently challenging work tasks that would carry risks of making mistakes. More importantly, offer time and space to review and analysis lessons learned from them and new work behavior required in coaching.

4) Help clients in Asia to find their own models of inspiration for managerial courage in APAC. Review teachable moments and personal applications based on these stories to foster managerial courage.


To end this week's conversation during the Rio Olympics, Asian business leaders could draw much inspiration from typically more petite Asian athletes who turn out winning more medals in weightlifting than athletes from other ethnicities. At this writing, China's Shi Zhiyong just won the weightlifting Olympics Gold at the 69kg class, successfully lifting 162 kg in Snatch and 190 kg in Clean-and-Jerk, overshadowing perceptibly bigger and taller Western rivals. Courage conceivably accounts for this counterintuitive performance.


"Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them." - Bruce Lee


Author's Profile:

Tommy Chan, Ph.D. is a Michigan State University-trained and registered psychologist with an integrated cross-cultural business background. He regularly coaches senior executives in Asia and the US to transverse and narrow the gaps between the Western multinational business mindset and Asian approaches in business performance in his private firm PPC, Ltd. after holding senior posts at Korn Ferry and CEB/SHL. Fluent in Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) and English, he is a highly demanded speaker, workshop facilitator, psychologist and senior executive coach for over 20 years in Asia and the US. A US citizen based in Hong Kong and Atlanta, Tommy could be reached at: tommyhmchan@gmail.com

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