Part 2: Ethical leadership, Words of Wisdom

Prof. Qinqin Zheng of the School of Management Fudan, Fudan University, shares Part 2 of her research into how traditional Chinese wisdom may play an important part in shaping ethical leadership in China. 

Confucius said…

Since the early 2000s, great interest has been shown in the notion of ethical leadership – and most of it from the English-speaking world. However, Prof. Zheng argues that practical wisdom from Chinese classical traditions may be of great guidance in contemporary management – in China and beyond. The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a telling example, with managers the world over searching the book for inspiration in competitive business situations. What is often overlooked is that besides tactics and strategy, The Art of War also promotes a set of leadership attributes that put in a modern context boil down to ethical leadership. Among these are humanity, sincerity, wisdom, benevolence, discipline and trust.

The teachings of Confucius also provide much influential thought, not only in China but throughout Asia. It comes as no surprise then that Confucianism is deeply embedded in leadership and business codes. Among one concept is that of ‘Zheng’ – ethical leadership, or, more precisely, governance. Confucius explains that three aspects are necessary for ethical leadership. The first is the leader’s personal code of conduct: if he/she acts correctly and properly, people will do their duty without the issuing of orders – which in the modern world might relate to walking the talk, consistency or setting an example. Public spiritedness and dedication make up the other two – notions that are easily transposed to the current context of shareholders, customers and suppliers.

One who stays near vermilion gets stained red

In recent years, growing research has pointed to broader groups such as communities and stakeholders having an effect on corporate performance. This is where the notion of social capital comes in, the network of cross-cutting relationships in society characterized by trust and reciprocity and even – in the best of worlds – where goods and services are sold for a wider, common good. As trust grows, social networks create more relationships and strengthen existing ones. According to Qinqin Zheng, this is especially important in China – a nation that ranks lower than any other Asian country in terms of individualism in Geert Hofstede’s famed national culture dimension scores. Indeed, argues Prof. Zheng, traditional Chinese perspectives long-ago took into account the importance of communities comprised of social capital and many other resources. Quoting Mencius, she adds: “One who stays near vermillion gets stained red, and one who stays near ink gets stained black” – a nugget on the impact of communities on individuals. For a leader, therefore, gaining the support of the people (and potential customer relationship) around him or her leads to business success.

Words of wisdom

Prof. Zheng’s research among 215 companies in China reveal that practical wisdom from Chinese classical traditions can be a positive influence for contemporary management. Developments in this area – to foster ethical leadership and its positive returns on customer relationships – should therefore incorporate community norms and codes that are mainly derived from traditional philosophical perspectives. Unfortunately, research shows that there are still few organisations that do integrate these into their educational or training programmes. Prof. Zheng sees this as an opportunity to therefore strengthen Chinese management, however. Innovating on education in ethical leadership at business school level, especially among MBA students, combined with in-house discussion of ethical issues connected to daily business dilemmas in the workplace, would sharpen both manager and employee awareness. The after-effect would also greatly satisfy the innate wisdom of the Chinese customer.

Return to Part 1 of the article Ethical Leadership, Words of Wisdom

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