BLG Leadership Insights

Do Challenges Define Leaders or Do Leaders Define Challenges?

deng and huThe People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) first generation of leaders were revolutionaries. Mao Zedong and his inner circle studied socialism, history, and philosophy and their accumulated passions and ideas helped them found the PRC. The “second generation of leaders,” best represented by Deng Xiaoping, pushed China into freer markets while still safe guarding the revolutionary principles they had studied and adopted as young men and women.

Then an odd thing happened. China’s leadership, beginning in the mid 1990s, started to look more like a MIT dinner party rather than a group of leaders solely driven by revolutionary concepts. Jiang Zemin became the first president of China who was an engineer. His successor, President Hu Jintao, just so happened to be a engineer as well.

Today, however, there seems to be a another shift in China’s leadership according to Melinda Liu in her Newsweek article, Right Brain. Now, it appears China’s new generation of leaders will have academic backgrounds in law, history, journalism, and other “softer sciences.”

Do Degrees Dictate Leadership Styles?

Maybe. Ms. Liu points to a few examples of leaders thinking with their degrees before considering the whole picture. Notably, Ms. Liu mentions China’s engineering leaders who think they can “build our way our of [our] problems.” When they tried to secure more energy they responded by building the Three Gorges Dam for a jaw-dropping 30 billion dollars. The only problem: they had to move over 1 million people and wave good-bye to a handful of promising archaeological sites.

China’s new batch of leaders will probably look at things from a different perspective. Ms. Liu openly hopes that China’s emerging leaders won’t let business interests trump social justice. She’s openly confidant, as she notes, “Of the eight fastest-rising young Politburo stars, none got their highest degree in engineering.”

Do Leaders Shape Their Organization or Vice-Versa?

Ms. Liu argues that China’s leaders are shaping China. However, China’s case is specialized and we are forced to ask: what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did China’s leaders shape China or did China’s social-economic situation propel them to the top? Leaders fluent in revolutionary rhetoric may have been needed to fill China’s leadership void at the turn of the century. Perhaps technically proficient leaders were required to orchestrate China’s vast infrastructure construction projects. And today, China’s lawyers may gravitate toward politics in order to iron out social unrest caused by China’s disparate economic growth.

What Does this Mean For your Organization?

Leaders with specializations have developed a framework from which to detect, confront, and solve problems. A scientists and a lawyer will look at a problem in two very different ways. As a leader, however, you have to build a new framework that assesses different factors and variables.

Moving agendas requires the ability to locate allies and resistors all while negotiating with different parties and sustaining momentum. It is a balancing act that requires its own specialization.

Leaders with specializations are great because, at times, they can relate to a large body of their employees and are perhaps better equipped to analyze their market. Still, a good leader can’t afford to only see one part of the picture.


BLG Leadership Insights

Leadership Book Forum: Chiang Kai-shek & Mao Zedong

In studying organizational leadership we often forget that the study of historical figures who are seldom mentioned in the corporate world may give us some interesting insight. Demythologizing leaders who’ve taken on the veneer of myth and forgotten history is an important exercise. Furthermore, sometimes we have a unique opportunity to compare two rivals in the process of trying to understand their role in history and, from our point of view, the personalities and subtleties in their style.

As I’ve often maintained in this blog before reading about leaders, even those who might not be role models, is more insightful than reading about leadership. Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, two of the most prominent figures of the 20th century, struggled against each other for the leadership of their nation. Their struggle as well as the analysis of their personality, their leadership styles, their tactics and strategies, their successes and failures, their flaws and their short-comings makes for a fascinating read for anyone interested about leadership.

The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China, by Jay Taylor chiangkai-shek

Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday chinabookmao