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Asian Leadership — OxyMoron?

Asians have had trouble assuming the stereotypical, Western modes of leadership. And like it or not, it tends to weigh on us like a self-fulfilling prophecy when we try to spread our wings. In the corporate world, it’s been called the “glass ceiling”. And already the question has been brought up of “Why are Asian American Executives Scarce?” by Dan Woog.

And yet, there seems to be something attractive about the Asian styles of leadership, take for instance, this line from a Harvard Business School professor:

Humility is a very uncommon trait in the American CEO. It is sometimes found in Asia. It is often a trait of the most effective leaders, as it was in the best-respected of all American political leaders, Abraham Lincoln.

Asian leadership, from Prof. Donald Quinn Mill’s pen, is stylistically unique today, but is developing into three different prototypes in the business world. Furthermore, he concludes with this interesting statement:

Styles of leadership are currently different between Asia and America. Culture colors the way things are done, but less so what is done. The differences in styles most markedly reflect the stage of development of the economies and companies of Asia. As Asian companies seek access to world capital markets, they will move toward professional managers who will employ leadership styles more akin to those now used in the United States.

And so it seems that in order to be a rising leader, you would think that Asian Americans would somehow be able to converge the stylistic, cultural strengths to be great leaders. In fact, that is perhaps where a group like LEAP has been significant over the last 20 years or so. But I wonder, despite our unique strengths of leadership, if the Western model of leadership will prevail in business, after all, cultural distinctions are seen as economic inefficiencies, and inefficiency is to be reduced, often by our very own Asian industrial engineers.

But what about Asian leadership in church? Sam Metcalf brings up some interesting questions in his blog, on this post about Asian church leadership issues, namely:

  • How can new generations of leadership emerge in contexts where status, shame and saving face are such predominant values?
  • Authoritarian leaders who abuse their followers are unfortunately the norm, not the exception in this part of the world. How can such a dysfunctional cultural paradigm be replaced by biblical, servant leadership?

How’s that for hitting close to home, eh? Aren’t these the same Asian leaders that in business were humble and concensus-seeking? My, my, my — we are a complex bunch.

As Timothy Tseng points out in his research, “Viewed from within Asian American Christian communities, this study reveals that Asian American ministerial leadership is quite gifted and has reached a high level of achievement…Nevertheless, from the mainstream perspective, Asian American ministerial leaders remain marginal and isolated.”

This seems to be saying that we might be limiting ourselves to being “masters of our domain” and little more. The problem with this, and one that I’ve brought up before, is that we often end up with too many leaders and not enough followers; which ultimately means, too many churches, and not enough leaders.

Our leadership in the Asian American church can be frightfully shortsighted and not taking advantage to synergize the Eastern and Western aspects of leadership to our advantage. It is shortsighted in that we do not play to the full measure of our capabilities. Some of that is because the continual fracturing and oversaturation of churches structurally weakens the leadership pool and the potential to unite and push in common direction. Other aspects of this assume that Asian Americans have limited appeal to others outside our demographic.

As Asian American believers, we have a unique historical and generational position to energize and transform both our mother culture to help them answer the questions that Sam Metcalf brings up; and appeal to our adopted pluralist American culture to say your Western models of leadership isn’t the only one out here. We need to be able to say to other races here in America, we are the sons and grandsons of Buddhists and Confucianists, but we worship Jesus today– and we find that some of the best aspects of Asian leadership reflect his humility and his leadership. Why don’t you quit searching for a savior in our texts, because he is risen and the kingdom is near, and we follow a great leader. Have you heard of him?

But we cannot claim this truth if we do not take up the mantle of leadership with more gravity. Gravity that cherishes the next generation, that is concerned about the disenchantment that our quibbles create, that is willing to stay ten years in the same church and city, that is willing to forgive at our own personal expense so that this generation would see that our leadership comes directly out of our discipleship to Christ, that we would be willing to mortgage our church buildings for them to achieve their destinies in Christ.

What good is it if we multiply churches but disillusion another generation? What good is it to have praise night after praise night when the worship leaders we truly need should get out of the four walls of the church and lead praise in the home of the weeping and downtrodden? We have preachers in churches when we need preachers in businesses and schools. Our greatest ambition should not be to start a church, but to extend the kingdom, and that is when our leadership will demonstrate that we are more followers than leaders, and that is exactly how God desires it to be — Asian or not.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

7 responses to “Asian Leadership — OxyMoron?

  1. elderj

    I’m not sure if the business author is particularly accurate when he describes the American corporate leadership system as “more mature” especially if you consider a case like Japan which had been an industrial economy for more than 100 years and yet retains a very distinctive Japanese leadership style in its own corporations. His assumptions smack of cultural superiority.

    In any event, Asian and AA leaders struggle with the same human sins that other do, just with the added complexity of being “minorities” so that their particular issues seem outsized in comparison. If the measure is Christ then we all come up short.

    In some ways the Asian church may be better served by people being more intentional about drawing on their own culture than by abandoning it – rather than trying to follow some other model and stumbling over ones own culture in the process. Does that make any sense?

  2. elderj, I think I do see your point and I know where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure a retrieval is in order, as I tend to think that our economies seem to favor a Westernized approach to pragmatism and efficiency in terms of leadership. And in actuality, I think the article was very favorable to Asian leadership styles. The irony is that in business, the leadership style seems more even handed than in our churches.

    And while the point I was trying to make may not have been clear, I believe that Asian leadership in our churches in our mother countries have stalled when it comes to creating change to the culture itself per Sam Metcalf’s commentary. Granted, his criticism may have been a perspective smacking of cultural superiority, but in light of the Gospel, don’t you think he brings up good questions re: leadership issues?

    In any case, I think you are absolutely right, both Western and Asian leadership styles need to be re-evaluated in light of what we believe, else our faith be made irrelevant. I would think this is where AA churches could be a great breeding ground for a new kind of leader, but we are just now getting into the sweet spot of this generation, so there is much hope and great expectations.

  3. djchuang

    It might be too far off and unreasonable to describe me as a leadership theorist, so here goes. From the different schools of leadership, my sense is that leadership is situational and contextual. It does take a certain set of leadership skills to lead in an Asian context, and it takes a markedly different set of leadership skills to lead well in an American context. I find both Asian and American styles of leadership to be too overly pragmatic. But that’s the theorist voice in me speaking, eh?

    Now, in a global international multinational context, it takes a different set of skills to lead well in a diverse mix. In that multinational context, I think what happens is certain values from one culture may take precedence over another culture’s, and depending on the corporation or organization, and how it measures “success”, that may well be efficiency, or profitability, or harmony, or global dominance of market share. There’s more than one way to slice the economic pie.

    From the Kingdom of God perspective, there is one world, and one leader: Jesus Christ, king of kings, lord of lords, leader of leaders. What that looks like and how that plays out, we’ve yet to see fully on this side of heaven.

  4. andre


    I love this post because you’re really onto something about the discrepancy between the perception of “too humble” asian business leadership and “authoritarian” asian spiritual leadership. Let me jump in with my two cents.

    OK it’s a little controversial but I dispute the notion of the “humble asian culture”. Humility without Christ is no true humility…even when humility is regarded as a prime virtue as it is in asian culture, it ends up being skewed. Dare we admit that “asian humility” is often an inverted pride that is concerned about “losing face” or “not appearing virtuous”.

    Sin is common to all men and all races and asians are no exception. On the other hand, authoritarian leadership as pointed out by Sam Metcalf is also evident here…although muted, because of there are behaviors that are not socially acceptable in an American culture built on Judeo Christian roots. I would argue that the reason for the observed authoritarian asian leadership in south east asia is only partially because of the culture. It is also because the church there is greatly influenced historically by pentecostal roots that have led to an emphasis on signs/wonders rather than sound doctrine and christian character.

    My point is to say – you’re right – a new perspective of asian christian leadership isn’t one that reaches back into our “roots” but one founded on Christ alone resulting in godly confidence and humble service.

  5. Andre,

    Thanks for the comment. You articulated the point I was trying to make much better than I could.

    However, I do want to make one point about the Southeast Asian church being influenced by signs and wonders vs. sound doctrine. I think that the opposite case, take Korea for instance, even where the Presbyterian church and Reformed theology is more strongly emphasized, they still have a problem with authoritarian leadership as well. I’m not sure if you can correlate excellent leadership with doctrinal statements in as much you can correlate spiritual revivals to a particular denomination.

    That being said, I’m absolutely not poo-poo’ing on sound doctrine and Christian character, I’m just making the point that it does seem that our cultural skin is much thicker than our hearts.

  6. andre


    Point well taken on your example of the Korean church. I realize my observations are limited to the South East Asian region (Malaysia, Singapore, etc..) where I grew up.

  7. Ben Pun

    David, what’s up? Hey, i just wrote a paper on this topic for my Pastoral Ministry class. DJ pointed me to this blog post, and I ended up using the Mills article and Tseng’s report as well. I posted my conclusion here:

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