Teaching leadership development in China has been a true learning experience. It could be beneficial to others as well, writes Jan Ketil Arnulf.

KNOWLEDGE @BI: Leadership in China

Almost ten years ago, I hosted a leadership development seminar in Shanghai. Watching the jet-lagged faces of multinational executives, I asked them if they would have come if the topic had been “Learning leadership in China”. They looked disinterested at me and answered “no”. As I asked why not, their answer was: “We wouldn’t think we’d have much to learn”.

This played of course right into my hands. The day before, we had been sightseeing the city and had to stop at one of the bridges over Huangpu to photograph the Shanghai city skyline. Pointing to a projected picture of this man-made concrete fantasy that stunned them the day before, I asked them if they really had nothing to learn from people who could create such worlds? They got the point.

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Thought-provoking facts

Today, we could add a series of achievements  such as the 80,000 kilometers of highways build in just 20 years (America has only half as much), or the Shanghai subway that in 15 years surpassed what London build in 150 years. The most thought-provoking fact is how China’s economy has sustained development despite frequent doomsday predictions.

It is rare to hear Westerners praise Chinese leadership culture. Westerners often seem blinded by the differences they find, and the obvious signs of problems that still abound in the enormously complex world that is China.

When I first started teaching leadership development in China, I believed my students were undergoing same phases of organizational development to Scandinavia in previous decades. Slowly, indirectly and sometimes by omission, they made me aware that their thinking rested on a vast heritage of leadership wisdom that informing educated Chinese. For my teaching not to be worthless, I should learn and pay attention to the sources of their thinking.

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Winning people's hearts

2000 leadership students later, I have learnt to appreciate a rich source of thinking about strategy, networking, building relationships, knowledge about the necessity of winning people’s hearts, and the necessary but sometimes backfiring nature of applying rules on people. Chinese leadership philosophy is beautifully contained in short aphorisms that are easy to remember and as flexible as they are useful.

Deng Xioping famously opened China’s economy explaining that “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” He said this standing on millennia of similar catchphrases. 

Chinese wisdom

In reality, the ancient roots of Chinese philosophy are informing not only Chinese executives, but also the western managers themselves.

A hundred years ago, it was not rare for westerners to quote ancient Chinese wisdom with respect, and some of it is still retained in modern management thinking.  The tricky part is to combine these in global management without undue friction.

The aim of our program is to integrate these traditions in a natural way, as modern Chinese executives seem to do. As the most famous saying goes: “The best leaders are those who make people achieve by thinking: We did it ourselves.”


The article is published in Norwegian Links issue 1/2013, Member Magazine for the Norwegian Chambers of Commerce in China, Hong Kong and Norway.

Text: Jan Ketil Arnulf, Associate dean to the BI-Fudan MBA program in Shanghai and associate professor, BI Norwegian Business School.


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