What Does “Leader” Mean in China?

Chinese leaders and power.There are many cultural differences between China and Western countries, which impact how business is conducted on a daily basis. However, one issue which may hold a disproportionate influence over company culture is differences in leadership styles. There are many ways in which Chinese leaders are different from their Western counterparts, some of which have been touched upon in previous articles. These include issues such as more roundabout communication styles, a greater focus on Face and relationships, and unique social and behavioral etiquette. And while this may be a lot to take in for the uninitiated, there is a simpler way. In order to understand how to interact with Chinese leaders, an easy first step is to learn about how they view themselves, and the titles they choose to assume.

An Introduction to the Concept of Lingdao (领导)

A universal term in Chinese for an executive, a boss, or anyone’s direct superior is “Lingdao (领导),” which can be roughly translated as “leader.” However, in actual practice the term Lingdao cannot simply be used interchangeably with its English equivalent. First of all, the general usage of the term varies greatly with how Westerners use the term “leader.” Most Westerners only use the term “leader” on occasion, (e.g. a conference of western leaders), and rarely, if ever, use the term to refer to or directly address a superior. In contrast, the term Lingdao is much more common in Chinese daily and professional language, and is often used to directly address managers and executives. Several common uses of the term Lingdao have been translated and provided below as examples:

  1. Through the support of the Lingdao, I will do my best to make contributions to the company
  2. I value the Lingdao’s concern for me.
  3. We’ve just received the Lingdao’s instructions. Let’s begin work immediately.

A Chinese boss is an emperorIn addition to the differences in common usage, the term Lingdao also carries a very different inherent meaning in China, than leader does in Western countries. In many ways, it harkens back to the traditional system of imperial rule in ancient China, with an all powerful emperor supported by an elite cadre of government officials. Rulers and other powerful men and women in China over the centuries have never really had to deal with limits on their power or the sort of checks and balances found in many Western democracies. In Western countries, the terms “leader” and “leadership” often imply bettering oneself and managing in a fair, just, and responsible manner. In China, Lingdao has much more to do with personal power.

It is also worth noting that while the boss of a company is universally “the Lingdao,” the term it is never directly associated with a specific role. Based on this author’s own experiences networking and cooperating with Chinese managers and executives, it would be more accurate to describe the term “Lingdao” as a status or honor that one attains through a position, or role. And this status does not necessarily only apply to the “top dog” within a company.  A director or manager might also be called a Lingdao by subordinates providing no one of a higher rank is present. Thus the specific person doing the “leading” gets the title, and the power and respect that go along with it.

Lingdao (领导) in Modern China

Of course, China is no longer an empire, although some companies are certainly run like one. Within many Chinese companies, especially small privately owned ones, a Lingdao can be is akin to an emperor within the sphere of his or her own authority. Orders and directives are expected to be carried out promptly without question. Those who might be granted the title of Lingdao also take a different approach to management – they don’t. Instead, a Lingdao often prefers to make decisions relating to strategy and general courses of action,while leaving implementation and employee management to their subordinates. And although it would be wrong to assume that all Chinese managers and executives are tyrants, there is most certainly a tendency to abuse the power that the status of Lingdao confers. As being a Lingdao represents a certain type of status or honor, Chinese managers and executives sometimes do whatever they can maintain that prestige, both by encouraging their superior status (and gain more Face) and exercising their authority, which can include issuing arbitrary commands, making employees work overtime, and offering verbal abuse.

The status of a Lingdao can have very strong pull for young Chinese white collar workers, many of whom dream of starting their own companies with this in mind. On one hand, abusive working environments, especially those in small companies, can make them eager (or desperate) to move on and try something new. On the other, Face is very important to many young Chinese employees, especially young men. In small companies only the boss or the manager can aspire to attain the Face and respect of a Lingdao. Thus, these two factors taken together, present a very strong case for Chinese workers to quit their current jobs and start their own companies. This author has, on many occasions, overheard many Chinese white collar workers remark on their plans to start a company, not to be an entrepreneur, but to be a Lingdao.

What Does This Mean for Western Business People & Employees?

For the Western business executive working in or traveling to China, the concept of Lingdao will likely not preset a huge problem. However, being aware of the concept can certainly provide greater insights into the actions and mindset of Chinese managers and executives. Chinese politicians are also leadersThe main times one must be careful are when meeting with an executive of an obviously higher status than oneself. In many cases, a Chinese executive might ignore any unintended gaffs or breaches of etiquette, though there are always times when a particular executive may be overly sensitive and decide to hold such a breach against the Westerner in question. If a Chinese executive’s Face is damaged, there may not be a way to recover the business relationship.

In fact, it is younger Western employees in China that are much more likely to have trouble with the concept of Lingdao. While almost all Westerners in China are treated with a certain degree of courtesy and respect, including low-level Western employees, this type of status only goes so far. Western employees who find opportunities to work with smaller domestic Chinese companies will likely have far less freedom to speak their mind, make suggestions, or help shape the course of the company. And dissatisfied Western employees who decide to press the point in pursuit of what they feel is rightfully theirs, may not only find any credibility they have built up disappearing, but their positions as well.

Final Thoughts

All in all, there is nothing perverse or wrong about the Chinese concept of Lingdao. Yes, it represents a model of leadership and behavior that many Westerners will find themselves at odds with, but for the most part it is not a system that is arbitrarily forced upon the Chinese rank and file. Many Chinese employees are much more passive than their Western counterparts, and for the most part do not chafe under a stronger hand at the wheel. Those that do in many cases leave for better opportunities, or aspire to become a Lingdao in their own company. What this author hopes to accomplish for Western readers through this article, is a deeper appreciation (if not necessarily agreement) of the core issues that drive Chinese managers and executives. By understanding the Chinese concept of Lingdao, managing cross-cultural business ventures will go smoother for Westerners, and younger Westerners will find it simpler to take up new opportunities in Mainland China.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions about leadership and management styles in China? Can you share any of your own experiences from working and doing business in China? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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