How Malaysia, Germany and the US differ in their definition of a leader
By ADRIAN PANG
Leadership is still a peculiar discourse and a skill that never seems to get close to perfection. It is a phenomenon that undergoes rapid transformations generation after generation.
From the charismatic leadership of people like Alexander the Great, to traditional leadership of the monarchs to modern-day bureaucratic and contemporary leadership, the quest to creep even an inch closer to perfection never seems to be within reach.
So much for the effort that this discourse has been objectified into an empirical study known simply as the science of leadership, something that Leaderonomics has embraced and embedded deeply into the fabric of our organisation.
While most researchers have settled on the consensus that good leadership falls within the range of the “effective leadership” spectrum, an extended spectrum with the “perfect leadership” dimension is a near-Utopian idea.
For its constant transformation has shown and reaffirmed the idea that leadership is not something that can be generalised. Effective leadership is still the ultimate lesson, achievement or milestone for an aspiring individual because it is something that one can grasp.
Therefore, I have come to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as a bona-fide perfect leader.
But what constitutes effective leadership? A separate conversation altogether, it remains complex and ambiguous as the comprehensible aspect of “effective leadership” also comes with a catch – it comes in different shapes and sizes.
This “shape-shifting” rhetoric is known simply as culture.
As a millennial studying sociology with a knack for observing cultures and a passion for travelling, I have observed and experienced leadership in different countries that brought me closer to understand how culture transcends all the “Dos and Don’ts” of becoming an effective leader.
My experiences with leadership in different cultures thus far have shaped my understandings of how culture is central to leadership especially among millennials, with the quest to improve my own leadership qualities in constant hindsight.
After all, we are already at the dawn of millennial leadership. Essentially, this form of emphasising culture and leadership gears me up for a globalised working environment which I hope can be relevant to my fellow peers and our present leaders on how to work better with the millennials.
Travelling has been integral to my experiences with cross-cultural leadership. As a born and bred Malaysian, I have spent my most productive years yet travelling and learning cultures.
I am privileged to be able to attain my tertiary studies in the United States after having spent a few fruitful months abroad in Germany.
The stark differences between these three cultures that encapsulated me in a little over a year have left me with experiences, memories and lessons to ponder as the next generation of leaders, the millennials, get ready to succeed their predecessors.
Here are the main takeaways of the different constituents of effective leadership in these three cultures. The different interpretations are honed from the classic three-pronged approach in social science: politics, social and economy.
(Please note that this is a general overview based on personal experiences, accounts and insights from locals and minor research to verify the accuracy of my experiences).
Malaysia: Diversity is Key
Malaysians are unique, in that we walk the talk when it comes to embracing cultural diversity within our own country.
Different cultures within this colourful nation are so deeply entwined with one another that we have found ways to encompass all the differences into one huge ball of beautiful mess.
Leadership is no different. Any workplace in Malaysia is usually diverse in that the workforce is comprised of people of different races and nationalities.
Therefore, it is essential for leaders in Malaysia to tap into the middle ground of these different cultural identities in the workplace to create a conducive and welcoming working environment.
However, this is easier said than done as the need to strike a balance between maintaining workplace professionalism and fostering colleagues’ relationships is often challenging.
The classic way is for a leader in the Malaysian culture to optimise opportunities to get to know employees more personally – in line with the classification of Malaysia as a high context culture.
In addition, Malaysians also value the subtle things that go into the personal realms to make relationships tick, which explains the irreplaceable “yumcha” or “mamak” sessions after work, tea or cigarette breaks during working hours.
These are one of my favourite elements of the working culture back home as I get to have meals, play sports and forge good friendships (note the specificity) with top figures of companies for which I have worked.
Furthermore, there are often mutual interests to know more about each other, of personal stories and interests.
These opportunities to build mutual relationships between leaders and their employees have enabled me to approach them for advice and lessons more directly.
They also ensure that such interactions and relationship-building are genuine and for the long term.
I have always heard stories of how my bosses are still in close contact with their former mentors or bosses for occasional advice and even catch up with former apprentices to celebrate and share their achievements and successes together despite taking different career paths.
Finally, leeway and flexibility are also important part of fostering relationships between employer and employees, be it sick leaves, flexible working hours or occasional delays or lapse in performances.
As a young professional, I am always going to face difficulties in completing tasks. The aforementioned “leeway” element provides spaces to breathe and learn as supervisors often know how and when to change their approaches and stance.
Ultimately, diversity is the driving force behind these approaches as it cultivates the way leadership plays out in Malaysia. In a nutshell, effective leadership in Malaysia is the ability to connect with employees while simultaneously ensuring they are working towards common goals.
Germany: Order and Quality
On the other end of the spectrum, Germans’ take on leadership is almost a complete opposite of its Malaysian counterpart.
When we think of Germany, we often associate it with quality – think German cars, machinery, cosmetic, pharmaceuticals etc.
This constant sustenance of quality stems from their culture and values that were developed over time.
The bulk of leadership and working cultures today are especially results of the post-war wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle).
But in a broader historical and sociological context, the Germans have always worked towards producing results and maintaining efficiency even before its economic miracle years.
While quality is the result of their working culture, order is perhaps the essential component. In fact, the culture of order transcends the working world.
Rules and laws are the stability of the German society and the Germans take them very seriously.
Citing from the renowned Expatica: “Germans are often described by non-Germans as having the following qualities: sensible, reserved, punctual, precise, cold, target-oriented, arrogant, sure of themselves, obedient, disciplined, plan-oriented, authoritative, stiff, unfeeling, direct, bureaucratic, professional, correct, self-assured, petty, highly orderly, strong, humourless, principled, reliable, perfectionist, organized”.
My experiences living and working in Germany affirmed most of these stereotypes. While they reflect reality of varying degrees, order is the predominant superset into which most of these stereotypes fall.
In essence, German leadership is pragmatic, bureaucratic and rigid. It is all about professionalism and hard work to ensure the quality of the end-product and practices that are for best for business.
Leadership credentials are built on experiences and technical knowledge of their trades and industries. Personal traits usually have minimal effects on job promotions or hiring.
There is usually a direct correlation between a leadership position and extra emphasis on the depth of skills, knowledge and experiences.
In short, a good leader is usually a highly skilled, experienced and technically sound professional, sometimes nothing more.
Moreover, direct communication that is most often goal-oriented is highly valued and central to German leadership. Germans rarely beat around the bush and their directness is often stone-cold, stern and uncompromising.
I have had several profound experiences with such directness, having my opinions ridiculed and heavily criticised in settings that would normally be embarrassing in my own and in many other cultures. However, the tendency for Germans to not intrude personal lives with their work makes such ordeals strictly professional to maintain productivity and quality.
My German professor notes that an intense and hostile meeting would normally be followed up with a cheerful social outing immediately; the hostilities are only restricted to works and business.
Therefore, this reinforces the idea that German leadership is often practised in a defined professional setting and it doesn’t spill over to personal spaces.
To conclude, effective leadership in German society is the success of pragmatism while maintaining order and discipline among employees to sustain productivity and quality.
USA: Communication and Cooperation
Caught in between the Malaysian and German leadership structures is the American model. America’s successes need no introduction and its model of leadership is the cornerstone to all the era-defining and life-changing successes.
The Land of the Free is self-explanatory. Among all the freedoms that are championed, none is perhaps as important as the freedom of speech.
This right of speech and thoughts are so deeply embedded into the American social psyche that communication is central to the functioning of the entire society. Among the three cultures I have had earnest experiences with, Americans are the most vocal of all in the workplace regardless of hierarchical presence.
Ideas, thoughts and opinions are constantly thrown around, mostly for constructive purposes. Thus, Americans often speak and stand firm and with conviction on what they really believe in and experienced.
As a person who does not hold back from voicing my opinions, my first few encounters working with Americans was rather intimidating. They brought the game of speaking up to a whole new level.
Even so, these experiences have added a new dimension in my interpersonal skill to be bolder, as did my peers from similar cultural backgrounds. As a result, there is always the risk of head-on and obvious clash of interests when everyone is equally vocal about their ideas or opinions.
This leads to the fundamental mediation practice of cooperation. And the physical manifestation of cooperation is the strong emphasis on team and teamwork.
The team provides a defined boundary that acts as a threshold to the range of ideas and opinions raised as each thought and proposition is to be filtered and processed by the team, thus creating a flow of thoughts and conversation, not merely individual perspectives.
As such, there exist many different types of teams and its own ways of brainstorming and doing things. The diversity is so vast that sometimes departments within an organisation have completely different working cultures among themselves.
An effective leader is thus the uniting and central figure to the team, able to influence, represent the team’s goals and beliefs and dictate final decisions. Therefore, individual traits are integral in leading teams in the American setting.
It is with no surprise that there are so many different types successful leaders in the history of the USA. From the authoritative leadership of Jack Welch at General Electric, to the innovative Steve Jobs, to the modern-day Iron Man Elon Musk and the charismatic Barack Obama, all these figures have their say in their own right on what constitute effective leadership.
Their successes are testaments to their claims.
However, it is due to these vast differences that enforce the idea that effective leadership in the USA is so focused on the individuals. Such leadership culture also constantly casts the leaders in the spotlight, and they are expected to always be accountable since they are the brands and organisations they carry.
Hence, they are naturally scrutinised more as individuals as compared to other cultures in which we often refer to leadership in organisational or group terms rather than the individuals.
From a practical perspective, the American leadership mirrors and balances elements from both its Malaysian and German counterparts. There is the constant need to micromanage the teams and individuals within it but often with less empathy and personalisation.
Many, including myself, see Americans as being superficial and difficult to form close and deep relationships that last long. The trick then is the “small talk” culture in the USA whereby one can strike up a conversation with anyone with ease, which is very useful for micromanaging a team.
On the other hand, the leader has to maintain productivity, efficiency and quality without overly rigid and orderly structures and approaches. There is a need to maintain a rather flexible working and reporting structure and environment to keep the ideas flowing.
In conclusion, the American leadership ideals start from within an individual, with a combination of skills, knowledge, experiences or interpersonal skills, rather than forming good relationships or establishing orders from the very first step.
I might have just scratched the surface and there might be more accurate examples and instances that represent better the leadership styles in these three cultures. Nonetheless, they are personal observations, experiences and minor research, and can be enforced or disputed based on others’ insights and experiences.
There are definitely many similarities between these styles too, such as the emphasis on listening.
However, the important takeaway is to motivate the next generation of leaders to embrace diversity and cultures so as to be aware of the significance of cultural awareness and understandings in an increasingly globalised world.
Leadership is no longer an internalised phenomenon exclusive to individual cultures. Instead, it is increasingly essential for different cultures to work together to ensure peace and prosperity in the world.
The very first step is none other than to learn and understand other cultures and how they approach leadership.
Fundamentally, the world requires human beings, not of nations but as a species together to push boundaries and face global crisis such as climate change and global security. Embracing differences will only make us stronger.
On a side note, as cliché as it might sound, travel more, especially when you are young as I share the same outlook as Nandos Malaysia and Singapore’s group CEO and director Mac Chung Lynn.
Never mind the financial restrictions, there are ways around it but the experiences and memories will broaden our perspectives, instil in us lessons, life tools and even paradigm shifts that will be useful for our interpersonal and relationship developments.
After all, to be a leader in a globalised world starts from within ourselves, whether we are willing broaden our horizons, understandings and tolerance of things outside our comfort zones. Travelling is one of the key to that growth.