SAF Scholars from China discuss the intersection of leadership and culture abroad.
In China, the way to show leadership seems very monotonous for students: either participate in the student union or be a class leader, like a monitor. Most importantly, a good academic performance is nearly a default condition. However, school life in Edinburgh tells me that leadership is more than that."
In a classroom at the University Edinburgh, a student tutor raises topics like a talk show host. Then an eager panel of peers sounds off, their voices occasionally overlapping. Zhilin Liu, a participant in the weekly study session, says the exchange of ideas inspires him.
“Every student has the chance to raise his or her point of view according to their different majors and different talents,” he says. “So I think this really forms a small group in which everyone has leadership and that really improves the efficiency.”
This collaborative approach to instruction “doesn't exist in China,” says the SAF scholar of his home country. “Leadership [in China] means that there’s a leader and several followers that must be directed and guided—the pattern never changes.”
That’s not to say it won’t. Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the country has increased exposure to organizations abroad. Researchers say that through rising global interactions, China's workforce is engaging with Western leadership styles in ways that could begin impacting how it works together, not to mention the growing number of students, like Liu, who are studying at Western universities. "The experience of studying abroad in the University of Edinburgh is an unforgettable and important period in my life," he says, "because I have seen many different views that differ from China." In this way, internationally educated students who go on to become leaders in the local workplace could be further catalysts for change.
Fellow SAF scholar Mengzhu Liu could be one of them. She discusses what she's learned abroad about leadership by saying, "In China, the way to show leadership seems very monotonous for students: either participate in the student union or be a class leader, like a monitor. Most importantly, a good academic performance is nearly a default condition. However, school life in Edinburgh tells me that leadership is more than that."
As an example, Mengzhu points to the university's many clubs and organizations which offer numerous opportunities for eager students like her to be at the helm. “In this situation, an interesting and also important phenomenon turns up: One person is leading and being led at the same time," she says. "I think it’s a very good phenomenon, because I believe that only if we exchange our roles can we realize each other’s feelings and difficulties."
Despite their differences, she says, Western and Eastern leadership styles complement each other, especially when it comes to valuing solidarity. “When collaborating with each other, information, skills and other resources are better shared and integrated. So, it’s not surprising that the number of team successes becomes far more than individual successes. It’s the same in China: people who want to go it alone will find it harder to succeed in today’s society.”
by Erika Woodward
Learn more about Chinese philosophy and leadership theory.
SAF Scholars and Alumni