Accelerating the Growth of the Asian Leader

Research from Gallup suggests that the emerging Asian workforce may benefit from a different model of leadership development.

Date Posted

1 Nov 2008


Issue 5, 14 Nov 2008


After years of phenomenal growth, Asian economies may well be facing a much slower pace of development given the current global financial crisis, although their fundamental potential remains sound. Indeed, given the instability and volatility in current global markets, highly capable leadership will be required across both public and private sectors, and across institutions large and small to sustain growth in difficult times. Top Asian leaders in government and the private sector should be asking a very fundamental question: “Does this region have the requisite leadership to keep growth going?”

Whilst rapid up-scaling of the Asian leadership bench is needed, Asian leadership, as a focal topic, has rarely been studied. Indeed, most of the research and books on leadership over the last decade have primarily focused on Western leadership. To this end, Gallup and the Global Leadership Institute (GLI) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) recently embarked on a landmark Asian Leader Study in 2008. This study was commissioned by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) of Singapore, and covered leaders in six dynamic Asian cities, namely Singapore, Bangalore, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai1. The Gallup-UNL Asian Leader Study has yielded many fascinating insights into the nature, style, quality and challenges of contemporary organisational leadership in Asia.


Through the study, many Asian Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) interviewed revealed that they were not formally developed and groomed for leadership positions. Instead, they had often been selected to lead because they were the most qualified in terms of their job performance, without any particular qualifications or experience in leadership. This “accidental” advancement of leaders can be seen across the board, regardless of whether the CEOs were from Singapore, Beijing or Bangalore. This is due in large part to the fact that most of the organisations in the study’s sample did not have a comprehensive and strategic leadership development system.

The four most common responses to why Asian CEOs ended up in leadership roles were:

  • because it "just happened" (accidental) in terms of being at the right place at the right time;
  • because they had a desire to have an impact by being a leader (a self-guided desire to positively impact others);
  • because they were simply seeking to do well in their current position and, as a result, increasingly had leadership opportunities presented to them (incremental);
  • because they were a member of the family business or had a strong parent who encouraged them to move into these leadership positions (appointed).

Leadership development in Asia must be more strategic, intentional and proactive.

Most of the CEOs said that they had no plan whatsoever to be a leader, let alone a top leader of an organisation. Very few saw it as their destiny to lead in the early part of their careers and were therefore not proactive and intentional in their personal leadership development. "Accidental" leadership transition seems to be the modus operandi in terms of leadership development for many organisations in Asia.

For organisations in Asia and for Asia as an entire region to accelerate and sustain their growth, more formal and more intentional forms of strategic leadership development must be embraced. Moving forward, leadership development in Asia must be much more strategic, intentional and proactive. If we leave leadership development to chance, Asia and its organisations run a very high risk of not being able to produce enough leaders to support their ambitions for growth.


Distinctive traits of the Asian leader emerged from the study's interviews with 44 CEOs.

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Many of the CEOs interviewed believed that job rotations and cross-cultural exchanges were very valuable experiences in developing leadership as compared to more traditional classroom-styled leadership development programmes. These CEOs mentioned the importance of anchoring events when asked to talk about key moments in their leadership development. Both positive and negative events helped define their sense of leadership early on in their careers, through occurences such as leading a corporate downsizing, integrating two companies through a merger, or taking a stand on controversial issues. Many would have benefited greatly from having some developmental support to get through these real life leadership challenges and scenarios.

Such key anchoring events could be systematically tapped by organisations that have put in place a strategic leadership development system. Anchoring events represent teachable moments for many a CEO and leader as they hone their leadership values and capabilities, formulate their leadership preferences and styles, and then use these experiences to improve their interactions with followers in subsequent leadership roles.

Positive and negative organisational events or 'accidents' will always occur. If organisations were to strategically leverage these teachable moments and anchoring events well, for example, by writing these events up and by leveraging them as internal case studies, or by pairing the leader undergoing the event with an experienced mentor during these learning events, we expect that organisations would be more capable and strategic in accelerating positive leadership development. Readying an organisation to tackle these events and using them for development might involve instituting "rapid response teams" or "coaches" who are prepared to help emerging leaders take advantage of these learning opportunities.


The study revealed that 86% of CEOs said that they provided mentorship when asked by their employees; however, only 17% had formal mentoring programmes in place within their organisations.

Most of the attempts at mentoring described in the CEO interviews were reactive and passive. Mentorship from these Asian CEOs ranged from taking employees to lunch, to listening to employee problems, providing advice and “offering wisdom”.

When asked about their organisation’s effectiveness in developing leaders, the CEOs in aggregate gave themselves and their organisations an average rating. Frequently in the interviews, the CEOs would talk about the many informal ways that leadership was being developed in their organisations, while indicating that formal programmes usually lack impact. The exceptions were CEOs coming from very large global enterprises that are well-known for investing a lot of time and resources into formal programmes to develop their leaders.

Organisations need to leverage on Asian leaders' desire to be role models and mentors.

From our study, we can conclude that Asian leaders are generally more reactive than proactive in their development of their employees as well as their direct reports. We did, however, find that if the employees reach out to the CEOs to request advice or to seek mentorship, Asian leaders are quite willing to provide development support. However, it was also clear from the study that these leaders do not proactively seek out followers to develop, nor excite them to the prospect of assuming leadership roles. Moving forward, for Asia to grow to its projected scale, this reactive style of leadership development, at both the individual leader as well as at the organisational levels, will need to change.


The CEOs interviewed mentioned role models frequently when they talked about leadership development. They have a great recollection and respect for the people who had mentored them and who had a strong impact on them.

Role models mentioned were typically male, and usually from family (fathers), school (teachers), or work (supervisors early in career).

The impact that role models have on the Asian leaders is typically earlier in their ascendancy into leadership roles. Many feel they should be displaying the positive characteristics of their role models now that they are in a significant leadership role themselves. Perhaps drawing on their personal experience, most of the leaders indicated that being a role model themselves is part of how they conceived of their impact as leaders on their organisation.

From an intervention standpoint, organisations will need to fully leverage on these Asian leaders’ desire to be role models and mentors. Role modelling and mentorship programmes can be formerly set up where junior to middle-level managers with high potential are paired up with senior level leaders with a strong desire to role model and mentor. By pursuing this strategy, Asian companies can better ensure that these junior to middle managers will be suitably groomed and mentored in time for a smooth and effective transition to senior leadership.

Executive coaching, as a senior leader development tool, does not appear to be well utilised, nor to have been systematically tested for impact, in Asia. Executive coaches could provide the type of facilitation that can help leaders become more aware of their strengths and limitations and they can facilitate development in others. With the right expertise and methodology, such coaches could potentially help senior role models take advantage of significant points of contact with junior staff and turn these “moments that matter” into positive developmental experiences. Executive coaching is something which Asian leaders and organisations could attempt to weave into their strategic leadership development programmes. Most importantly, future work to test the impact of using coaching on leadership development is long overdue in both Asia and the West.


Are Asian leaders and their organisations ready for what has been labelled a looming “war for leadership talent”? The answer in our minds is absolutely not, at this point.

Strategic leadership development associated at the CEO level in Asia is far too passive and accidental. For Asia and its organisations to scale and sustain their rapid growth, they need to make leadership development more intentional, strategic and proactive.

It is time to define a new way of developing the Asian leader. We believe it is not too late to do so. This is what we believe, looking ahead.

  • Over the next decade, the growth of Asian cities and their organisations will lead to increasing competition for strong and able talent. There is no time to lose. Asian cities and organisations that aggressively attract and develop the best leadership talent sooner will be much better positioned to weather and win the “war for leadership talent”. This means having accurate tools to identify, select, hire, promote and develop raw talent and these tools do exist.
  • Leadership development should commence earlier in an employee's career (especially if they have leadership potential). Our study clearly indicates that early life events trigger significant understanding and change that better positions talented individuals for growth and for future leadership roles. Many of the CEOs in the study took a long time to derive leadership lessons despite the insights of experience. This is more likely to be the case when an organisation lacks strategic leadership development support. We need to better understand how teachable moments accelerate leadership development, whether they can be systematically created, and then to methodically apply them organisationally to accelerate leadership development.
  • Organisations must be more strategic and intentional in designing and implementing formal leadership development and succession management programmes. They will need to balance the formal with the informal. Leaders must be on the lookout for, and make much better use of anchoring events to develop leaders in their organisations. Such leaders also must be measured and rewarded for developing future leadership talent; otherwise they will simply not allocate the required time and attention to do so.
  • We do not see significant growth ahead for traditional training interventions or standard leadership development workshops. Instead, there will be a trend towards highly customised (to the organisation) and highly individualised (to the leader) leadership development interventions that are deeply embedded in organisations, psychologically meaningful to the leader, and strongly supported by information technology.
  • As cities in Asia become more successful along with their respective organisations, there will be increased pressure to develop managers and leaders who have a global mindset. The workforce will become increasingly diverse and more difficult to lead and manage across a complex set of cultural values. The global workforce (including in Asia) is already demonstrating an increased emphasis on individualism and on achieving greater personal meaning in life and work. The new workforce will require greater flexibility at work, and will demand to be much better informed about how decisions are made generally and about them in particular.
  • As a consequence of generational differences, there will be increasing pressure on leaders to be more transparent with their followers and to proactively share leadership responsibilities and authority. The new workforce will be more keen to question their leaders, especially when they feel that such questioning is justified. Asian leaders and their organisations should therefore develop a new range of leadership capabilities, building an engaging and winning culture to attract and retain talent. We predict that senior leaders will spend a lot more time and energy to develop their followers into leaders, while emotionally engaging their high potential followers in the process.

This meant that in a matter of weeks, the system was set up and people were able to lodge claim forms at a convenient shopfront, which then sent the claim forms to a processing centre that quickly processed them and made payments to customers.

These anticipated changes suggest that things will be more challenging for an Asian leader moving forward, especially in terms of their developmental role. Strategic and smart adaptations at the individual leader level will enable Asian leaders to triumph over these cultural transformations. Organisations and cities in Asia must act now, so that they can proactively win the war for leadership talent, and continue to thrive and succeed well into the future.

Simply ask yourself this question: “How long does it take to produce a top Asian leader?” Once you can answer that question, you will realise that you ought to start today on transforming the way future leaders will be developed, and by whom and when.


The new generation of Asian employees will make the job of being a leader in this region even more challenging.

The CEOs interviewed in the study saw big differences between their own generational cohort and that of the current one entering the workforce.

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Bruce J. Avolio is the Marion B. Ingersoll Professor, Director of the Foster Centre for Leadership at the University of Washington. Professor Avolio has published extensively on leadership; his recent books include Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Capital Edge (USA: Oxford University Press, 2007) and The High Impact Leader (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006). 

Peter Ong is Managing Partner for The Gallup Organization in Singapore, Hong Kong, and South-East Asia. Mr Ong has led many leadership development and behavioural economics type projects with both public and private sector organisations. Mr Ong is exceptionally interested in the concepts of "Soul of the City" and its links to engaged citizenry and brain gain; and the building of successful and sustainable organisations through the employment of behavioural economics approaches. Mr Ong is an executive coach to a dozen C-suite executives leading key enterprises locally and internationally.


  1. The Asian Leader Study employed a two-pronged approach. For each of the six cities, 300 nationally representative middle managers were surveyed to obtain their assessment of middle to senior leadership in their organisations. In the second phase of this study, a total of 44 CEOs from Singapore, Bangalore and Beijing were interviewed to determine how they viewed their own leadership styles, and how they perceived the overall quality of leadership and followership in their respective organisations. The study also examined how each of these CEOs came into senior leadership roles and assessed what each of them were doing in their organisations to develop and grow future leadership. For further details on the study, please contact Professor Bruce Avolio at

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