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An Emergent Leadership Model Based on Confucian Virtues and East Asian Leadership Practices

Module by: LingLing Yang, Beverly J. Irby, Genevieve Brown. E-mail the authors

Summary: For more than 2000 years, Confucian teaching has had tremendous influence on the history, politics, economy, and culture of East Asian countries and regions. Despite the rapid growth in gross domestic product (GDP), people’s standard of living, and economic advancements, Confucian Asia continues to adhere to the Confucian cultural values that they have embraced for hundreds of years. The shared Confucian cultural values and traditions have played an important role in the formation and development of East Asian leadership practices. In this chapter, we examine the Confucian-based cultural values and East Asian leadership practices. Based on Confucian traditions and East Asian leadership practices, leadership model emerged. This model may be applicable in other cultural contexts.

NCPEA Publications



This manuscript has been peer-reviewed, accepted, and is endorsed by the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) as a significant contribution to the scholarship and practice of education administration. In addition to publication in the International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, Volume 7, Number 2 (Summer 2012), ISSN 2155-9635, this manuscript exists in the Connexions Content Commons as an Open Education Resource (OER). Formatted and edited by Theodore Creighton, Virginia Tech; Brad Bizzell, Radford University; and Janet Tareilo, Stephen F. Austin State University. The assignment of topic editor and double-blind reviews are managed by Editor, Linda Lemasters, George Washington University. The IJELP is indexed in the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), sponsored by the United States Department of Education.


East Asian countries and regions, also called Confucian Asia (i.e., China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Mongolia) (House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, 2004) have cultural values and traditions in common, such as humaneness, righteousness, trustworthiness, honesty, politeness. According to Shi and Westwood (2000), the cultural values and traditions show great persistence, consistency, and coherence. The persistence, consistency, and coherence have deep roots in three religio-philosophical traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Among these three, Confucianism has had a major influence on the history, politics, economy, and culture of China and other East Asian countries and regions for more than 2000 years (Collcutt, 1991; Lee, 2001; Lin, 2008; McDonald, 2011; Tu, 1999).

In this article, we examined Confucian-based philosophical, cultural values and East Asian leadership practices. An examination of Confucian traditions and East Asian leadership practices resulted in an emergent leadership model. This model may be applicable in other cultural contexts.

Cultural Values and Leadership Practices

Culture and values are closely related concepts with values being “the essential core of culture” (Kluckhohn, 1951, p. 5). According to Kluckhohn (1951), culture “consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values” (p. 5). Hofstede (1980) also indicated that culture, “includes systems of values; and values are among the building blocks of culture” (p. 28). Since culture “distinguishes the members of one human group from another” (Hofstede, p. 28), values are dependent on the social and cultural context. As Spreitzer, Perttula, and Xin (2005) believed, cultural values are “the internalized beliefs, as conveyed by the context in which they exist, that people hold regarding what they should do” (p. 208). Therefore, cultural values provide guidance and protocols for people’s thought, attitudes, behaviors, and reactions to external conditions.

Researchers have noted that cultural values, being relatively persistent (Hofstede & Peterson, 2000), have an important influence on the development of leadership ideals and practices and are congruent with leadership practices in a given society (e.g., Erez & Earley, 1993; Gerstner & Day, 1994; Hunt, Boal, & Sorenson, 1990; Scarborough, 1998). Erez and Earley (1993) suggested that leadership practices consistent with a society’s predominant cultural values are evaluated favorably. Further, Scarborough (1998) argued that although societies and external pressures may have influenced some practices of leaders, their leadership practices continue to be congruent with their core cultural values, and leaders’ behaviors generally reflect societal core values. For example, leadership practices in East Asian countries and societies then typically would reflect cultural values based in Confucianism.

Confucian Virtues and Confucian-Based Cultural Values

Due to the tremendous influence of Confucianism on East Asian countries and societies, these countries and societies, to a great degree, share a culture grounded in Confucian ideology. It is known that Confucianism is a complex system of moral, social, political, and religious teachings created by the early Chinese philosopher, Confucius1, based on the ancient Chinese traditions and later developed by Mencius2 and other Neo-Confucianists (Hershock & Ames, 2006). Confucianism includes the following main virtues: rén (benevolence or humaneness), (righteousness), (rites and rituals, propriety), zhì (wisdom), xìn (honesty and trustworthiness), zhōng (loyalty), shù (reciprocity, altruism, and forgiveness), and xiào (filial piety). These virtues reflect and unify indigenous Chinese values (Lam, 2003; Romar, 2002; Thompson, 2010). Confucianism, as the essence of East Asian ideological and cultural values, has a significant impact on East Asian leadership practices (Cheung & Chan, 2005; Ip, 2011; Lin, 2008).

Rén - Benevolence

Rén, as the fundamental virtue of Confucianism, means benevolence, love, kindness, charity, compassion, altruism, goodness, or perfect virtue. Although rén has appeared as many as 105 times in the Analects3, Confucius never gave a formal definition on the concept of rén (Tao, 2000). However, from the sayings of Confucius, the underlying notion of rén is love (Tao, 2000).

[Rén]is to “love all men [and women]” (Confucius, trans, 1971, p. 260).

Filial piety and brotherly [and sisterly] submission are “the root of all benevolent actions” (Confucius, trans, 1971, p. 139).

Five things constitute perfect virtue of rén: “Gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness” (Confucius, trans, 1971, p. 320).

According to Tao (2000), the concept of rén has two meanings: “As a particular virtue, rén refers to the virtues of benevolence and altruistic concern for others. As a general virtue, rén stands for perfect virtue, goodness or moral perfection” (Tao, 2000, p. 12). Thus, rén encompasses every virtue in a perfect human being, from virtue of benevolence to righteousness, propriety, loyalty, forgiveness, filial piety, and courage. Chan (2008) explained rén from both personal and interpersonal aspects. According to Chan, rén starts in an individual self, extends to the family and others, and ultimately to the whole world. As Mencius stated (as cited in Chan, 2008),

  • Treat the aged of your family in a manner befitting their venerable age and extend this treatment to the aged of other families: treat your own young in a manner befitting their tender age and extend this to the young of other families... In other words, all you have to do is take this very mind here and apply it to what is over there. Hence, one who extends his bounty can bring peace to the four seas, one who does not, cannot bring peace even to his own family. There is just one thing in which the ancients greatly surpassed others, and this is the way they extended what they did. (p. 65)

Yì - Righteousness

has been translated as righteousness, which may be an equivalent to justice in words and actions (Yearley, 2003). Confucius defined as doing the right thing for the right reason. He said, “The superior man [and woman], in the world, does not set his [her] mind either for anything, or against anything; what is right he [she] will follow” (Confucius, trans, 1971, p.168). Thus, is “‘oughtness’ of a situation” (Feng, 1948, p. 42). Researchers suggested that concerns whether an action is morally right or wrong, and tells people what the right thing is to do in right situations (Cua, 2003; Feng, 1948). In the Analects, Confucius (trans, 1971) stated “The mind of the superior man is conversant with righteousness []; the mind of the mean man is conversant with gain [ or profit]” (p.170). That is placed in opposition to implies that a virtuous person acts according to what ought to be done rather than what he or she may profit.

Lǐ - Propriety

originally meant to sacrifice in a religious ceremony. In Confucianism, is an all-embracing system of norms (Hershock & Ames, 2006) including the traditions, social customs, propriety, etiquette, politeness, and legal rules. According to Schwartz (1985), is “the cement of the entire normative sociopolitical order” because it “involves the behavior of persons related to each other in terms of role, status, rank, and position within a [hierarchically] structured society” (p. 67). In Confucian society, social order and political stability were maintained through the system of and the observance of .

For Confucius, to practice and establish a well-ordered society, the key issue was the rectification of names (Confucius, trans, 1971). For example, each thing has a name. “Every name contains certain implications which constitute the essence of that class of things to which this name applies” (Feng, 1948, p. 41). Things in actuality should be made to agree with the implications attached to the names or the essence of the things (Feng, 1948). According to Confucius (trans, 1971),

  • …When names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. (p. 263)

Confucius proposed that a commonly shared set of names and the ethical meaning of names be established to help people to understand and the norms be formed to follow according to their roles and positions in social relationships (Chan, 2008). For example, in social relationships, such names as ruler, minister, father, mother, son, and daughter entail different responsibilities and duties. The individuals who bear these names must fulfill their responsibilities and duties accordingly (Feng, 1948). When everyone knows his or her place in the social order and play his or her part well, namely, “when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son, there is government (Confucius, trans, 1971, p. 256).

Zhì - Wisdom

Zhì, translated as knowing, understanding, and wisdom, is one of the Confucius cardinal virtues possessed by a superior person. Thus, it is one essential quality that virtuous leaders should have. Confucius defined a person with zhì (i.e., a wise man or woman) as being knowledgeable and free from doubts. When Fan Chi, a Confucius’ disciple, asked about zhì, Confucius (trans, 1971) remarked, “To give oneself earnestly to the duties due to men, and while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom” (p.191). To become a person with zhì, that person should learn from various possible sources and enjoy the acquisition of a variety of knowledge. Confucius believed (trans, 2002), “There must be a teacher for a person in a group of three” (p. 202).

A superior person or a true leader is a person with zhì and . He or she should not only have expertise, talent, and ability and diligently pursue the enrichment of the knowing, understanding, and wisdom through arduous learning and investigation, but he or she should also care about people, know and do what is appropriate for them, and be willing to serve the common good (“To Zhi is to understand,” 2006; Xu, 2011). Confucius endowed zhì with a moral connotation and demanded that talented individuals with moral integrity be placed in leadership position (Hsiao, 1979; Xu, 2011). As noted in the Great Learning (Confucius, trans, 1971),

  • The extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. (p. 358)

Xìn -Trustworthiness

Xìn (honesty, truthfulness or faithfulness) is another cardinal virtue in Confucianism, which emphasizes being honest, telling the truth, and keeping up with what one has promised. Truthfulness or faithfulness is regarded by Confucius as the basis in interpersonal communication and for governing people and administrating a state. Confucius (trans, 1971) taught to his disciples, “[You should] hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles [and] have no friends not equal to yourself. When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them” (p. 141). He compared the truthfulness to the cross-bar to which oxen are yoked. Without it, the cart cannot be moved. He doubted that a person without truthfulness could succeed in doing anything. Honesty and truthfulness are very important leadership qualities. Rulers (or leaders) should be honest and faithful with their words being consistent with their actions and by taking the responsibility for and learning from their mistakes. In this way, they would win the faith of the people, for example, “if the people have no faith in their ruler [leader], there is no standing for the State” (Confucius, trans, 1971, p. 254).

Zhōng and Shù – Loyalty and Reciprocity

Zhōng and shù are two ways of practicing rén. Zhōng (loyalty, doing one’s utmost) reflects the positive aspect of the practice of rén. It demands people to have a conscience for others (Feng, 1948) and to be considerate of others (Li, 2008). That is, do to others what you wish for yourself. Shù (reciprocity and altruism) represents the negative aspect of the practice of rén. Shù tells people to follow Confucius’ golden rule of never imposing on others what they themselves do not desire (Feng, 1948). In other words, true leaders allow others to maintain different opinions and never infringe upon others’ rights. They value otherness and differences and embrace pluralism and diversity (Sackney, Walker, & Mitchell, 1999).

Xiào - Filial Piety

According to Confucius, xiào (filial piety) is the root of all virtues and thus is regarded as the greatest of virtues. Xiào refers to showing the respect and obedience towards both the living parents and the dead ancestors. According to Confucius, a well-established government of the state begins with regulating the family and moral teachings should be first of all practiced in the family. As Confucius (trans, 1971) said in the Great Learning4,

  • The ancients, who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue through the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulate their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy. In order rightly to govern the state, it is necessary first to regulate the family….Therefore, the ruler, without going beyond his family, completes the lesson for the state. There is filial piety. (p. 357)

Confucian Model of East Asian Leadership Practices

The set of virtues in Confucianism are interrelated and none of them is found in isolation (Palanski & Yammarino, 2007). In Confucianism, rén is regarded as the virtue of virtues (Bell & Chaibong, 2003). Rén encompasses all other virtues, such as (righteousness and justice), (propriety, rites and rituals), zhì (wisdom), xìn (honesty and trustworthiness), zhōng (loyalty), shù (reciprocity and altruism), and xiào (filial piety). All these virtues revolve around the concept of rén. Rén is “the source from which other virtues originate, or an overarching metavalue that unifies all virtues” (Yang, Peng, & Lee, 2008, p. 35). is the means to cultivate rén and (Xu, 2011). Confucius (trans, 1971) said, “The gentleman [gentlewoman] has morality as his [her] basic stuff and by observing the rites, puts it into practice” (p. 209). Observing without rén is meaningless because the content of is largely defined in terms of benevolence (Yang, Peng, & Lee, 2008). Additionally, zhōng and shù are two ways of practicing rén which have been best expressed in the Confucian golden rules: Do to others what you wish yourself and “do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire (Confucius, trans, 2002, p. 155). Xiào is the initial starting point of rén within family relationships.

Derived from rén and other aforementioned virtues aresix leadership practices (i.e., humane and benevolent leadership, ethical and moral leadership, transformational leadership, expert and professional leadership, paternalistic leadership, bureaucratic and authoritarian leadership) that have been developed and widely conducted in East Asian countries and societies (Figure 1). Based on this derivation, we proposed a leadership model, with the the Confucian virtues (i.e., rén, , , zhì, xìn, zhōng, shù, and xiào) making up the inner part, and the six leadership practices constituting the outer layer. Within the model, the leadership practices are deeply rooted in and derivatively related to the virtues. For example, moral and ethical leadership has its root in rén,, and lǐ and is derived from these virtues. The practice of these virtues and the governance and leadership developed from these virtues aim at achieving harmonious social relations and political stability and are conducive to maintaining the harmony and stability.


Figure 1. An emergent leadership model: Confucian model of East Asian leadership practice

Humane and Benevolent Leadership

Confucian humane and benevolent leadership has its deep root in the Confucian virtue, rén (benevolence), which is a perfect virtue encompassing all other virtues (e.g.,, zhì, xìn, zhōng, shù, and xiào). Confucianism regards rén as the highest moral principle or the virtue of virtues (Bell & Chaibong, 2003). When Chi Kang asked how a ruler should practice rén and help people to attain rén, Confucius (trans, 1971) said, “Let him [her] preside over them with gravity; then they will reverence him [her]. Let him [her] be filial and kind to all; then they will be faithful to him [her]. Let him [her] advance the good and teach the incompetent; then they will eagerly seek to be virtuous” (p. 152). In Confucianism, the ultimate goal of human life is to cultivate oneself to be a fully human being to become a jūn zǐ (i.e., a superior man or woman) (Rosemont, 2008). A jūn zǐ is a person of rén who loves and cares for his [her] people, understands their needs as human beings, lives and acts according to righteousness, and observes appropriate rites and rituals. If the ruler lacks benevolence and acts inhumanely towards his subjects, he runs the risk of losing the Mandate of Heaven, the right to rule (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1998).

Humane and benevolent elements have long been found to exist and currently prevail in Confucian East Asian organizations (Dore, 1973; Farh & Cheng, 2000; Redding, 1990; Wang & Cheng, 2010; Westwood & Chan, 1992). As early as the 1970s, Dore (1973), in British Factory, Japanese Factory, suggested that Confucianism may have brought a more humane element to labor-management relations in Japan’s industrial development than was observed in the West. He stated,

  • …those in positions of authority have been rather less disposed than their Western counterparts to see their subordinates as donkeys responsive to sticks and carrots and more disposed to see them as human beings responsive to moral agent (pp. 401-402).

Benevolence is identified as one of the common elements in paternalistic leadership that fit in Chinese management and organizations based on the study of business organizations in the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong (Farh & Cheng, 2000; Pun, Chin, & Lau, 2000; Redding, 1990; Silin, 1976; Westwood & Chan, 1992). According to Farh and Cheng (2000), authority is combined with “fatherly benevolence and moral integrity” (p. 84) in paternalistic leadership. On one hand, a leader takes the responsibility of protecting and caring the followers; on the other hand, the subordinates have the obligation of paying respect, loyalty, and commitment towards the leaders.

Recently researchers have shown that humane and benevolent elements permeate the actions of Confucian leaders and their leadership (Farh & Cheng, 2000; Redding, 1990; Wang & Cheng, 2010). For example, Cheung and Chan (2005) examined the relationships of Chinese philosophies with managerial practices based on dialogues with five eminent corporate executive officers (CEOs) in Hong Kong. They found that these CEOs conducted benevolent leadership, which has been manifested in terms of sympathy, friendliness, forgiveness, trust, need fulfillment, and paternalism. In addition, Farh, Liang, Chou, and Cheng (2008) reported that benevolent leadership behaviors can be demonstrated both within and beyond professional relationships, such as providing mentoring, giving support in subordinates’ professional development, face-saving in public, treating subordinates as family members, assisting subordinates in their personal crisis, and even showing concerns over subordinates’ personal issues.

Confucius believed that humane governance can be established, social harmony thus being achieved through implementation of rén, observance of , and people’s natural morality, rather than by using force and coercion (Richard, 2007). Confucius (trans, 1971) noted,

  • If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good. (p. 146)

The governance through people’s natural morality was similarly stated by Sergiovanni and Starratt (2002), “moral authority [or leadership] is derived from the obligations and duties that [followers] feel as a result of their connection to widely shared community values, ideas, and ideals” (p.35). When moral authority is in place, leaders will rely less on external controls because these norms and values substitute direct supervision as followers feel duties and obligations by becoming self-managing.

The CEO of Haier Group, Zhang Ruimin, exemplified Confucian virtues of rén (benevolence), (righteousness), (rules of propriety), zhì (wisdom), and xìn (honesty and trustworthiness). Zhang’s leadership philosophy is employee-centric and people-oriented. At the beginning of his leadership, he guaranteed the payment of salaries to workers, but demanded the rules and regulations be obeyed. Far from being intimidated by the disciplines, employees obtained a sense of security and thus had faith in him. When employees’ natural morality was aroused, their morale was greatly boosted. In a word, he believes that employees should be provided with sufficient room “to create value and to achieve self-realization” (Zhang, 2007, p.144).

Ethical and Moral Leadership

Confucian ethical and moral leadership can be traced to Confucian virtues of rén (benevolence and humaneness), yì (righteousness and justice), and (rules of propriety, rites and rituals), which “provide the basic architecture of the Confucian moral edifice” (Ip, 2011, p. 686). According to Ip (2011), in Confucianism, rén and yì are ordained to ground morality, while is deemed as “the shaper and binder of morality” (p. 686). Therefore, rén, yì, and constitute a basic system of moral virtues that define human morality and guide human actions and relations (Ip, 2011). Rén and yì can be established through the observance of . In addition, zhì (wisdom) and xìn (trustworthiness) guarantee the practice of Confucius’ moral principles of benevolence and righteousness, faithful observance of rules of propriety, and fulfillment of moral and social responsibility. Xiào (filial piety) is the first step towards the moral excellence in Confucianism. For Confucius, “nurturing respect and obedience through daily family transactions was critical in creating and maintaining the moral order” (Cummins, 1983).

In Confucianism, jūn zǐ as a moral perfection has a commitment to the moral virtues of rén, yì, and . Confucius (as cited in Bass & Steidlmeier, 1998) once said

  • Wealth and honor are what every person desires. But if they have been obtained in violation of moral principles, they must not be kept. Poverty and humble station are what every person dislikes. But if they can be avoided only in violation of moral principles, they must not be avoided. If a superior person departs from humanity (rén), how can he [she] fulfill that name? A superior person [jūn zǐ] never abandons rén, even for the lapse of a single meal. In moments of haste, one acts according to it. In times of difficulty or confusion, one acts according to it. (p. 8)

In Confucianism, the concept of moral leadership entails three connotations: (a) zhèng míng (rectification of names); (b) self-cultivation; and (c) leading by example. The process of rectifying names is in essence that of performing and observing (rules of propriety). Confucian leaders practice moral leadership not only through observing rules and regulations themselves but also by helping people to understand and follow the norms according to the rules of propriety (Chan, 2008). In addition, Confucian leaders build character and moral leadership through self-discipline and self-cultivation and exemplary teaching. Exemplary teaching, “as a standard of inspiration, invites voluntary participation” (Tu, 1999, p. 2). Confucius (trans, 2002) once said “Government is being correct. If you give a lead in being correct, who would dare to be incorrect” (pp. 114-115)? Confucius (trans, 2002) also stressed, “If a man [woman] manages to make himself [herself] correct, what [difficulty] is there to taking office for him [her]? If he [she] cannot make himself [herself] correct, what business has he [she] with making others correct” (pp. 124-125)?

Moral character has been viewed and used as an important benchmark for leadership selection and evaluation in Chinese cultural contexts. For example, when Misumi’s PM (i.e., performance and maintenance) leadership theory was adapted for use in mainland China, the researcher found it necessary to add an additional leadership factor, character, to adequately characterize Chinese leadership (Xu, 1989). Another example is when examining Chinese implicit leadership, Ling, Chia, and Fang (2000) revealed that 622 participants from five different social groups gave high ratings to four dimensions including personal morality, goal effectiveness, interpersonal competency, and versatility. Personal morality explained the largest amount (35.79%) of the variance, suggesting that Chinese participants considered moral character as the most important feature of leadership.

pertains to ethical and moral leadership, which demands that leaders have a sense of social responsibility by putting (righteousness) before (profit) and considering what is best for most of people. By interviewing 47 Confucian entrepreneurs during 1997-2000, Cheung and King (2004) examined the practice of righteousness with profitability by Chinese entrepreneurs. The researchers found that Confucian entrepreneurs observed the Confucian virtue of and never pursued at the expense of . They commented,

  • All businessmen aim at making money. But Confucian entrepreneurs do not do so in indiscriminant fashion. Even within legal boundaries, they distinguish between moral and non-meaningful practices and try to encapsulate their profit making activities within the boundaries of their moral life. (p. 258)

Transformational Leadership

Rén is “the central concept of Confucian ethics, and the concept of care” (Li, 2008, p.175). According to Confucius, a person of rén understands the needs of others and cares for the development of others (Chan, 2008; Li, 2008). Confucianism advocates reciprocal humanitarian leadership and “encourages leaders to enhance positive moral values and higher order needs of followers” (Lee, 2001, p. 6).

According to Confucius (trans, 1971),

  • Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others. To be able to judge of others, by what is nigh in ourselves; this may be called the art of virtue. (p. 194)

In Confucianism, moral leaders “engage virtue in self, others and society through example and virtuous conducts” (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1998, p. 9) and in so doing, they transform themselves, others, and society accordingly.

The leadership concept based on Confucian virtues and ethics (benevolence and righteousness) has congruence with the transformational leadership. Burns (1978) noted that transformational leadership,

  • … occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality. Their purposes, which might have started out as separate but related, as in the case of transactional leadership, become fused. Power bases are linked not as counterweights but as mutual support for common purpose. . . . The relationship can be moralistic, of course. But transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has transforming effect on both. (p. 20)

More recently, researchers have indicated that effective leaders in contemporary Chinese organizations possess the qualities of transformational leadership and implement transnational leadership (Bozionelos & Leung, 2004). For example, Yang (2010) examined 18 Chinese higher educational leaders’ leadership. She found that the majority of these leaders demonstrated benevolent, moral, and transformational leadership behaviors. They described their leadership behaviors as a function of (a) caring for, respecting, supporting, and facilitating colleagues and students; (b) providing public services to them; (c) helping them to make accomplishment; (d) leading by example; (e) doing whatever is the best for their organizational units; and (f) having a sense of responsibility to communities and the society. Moreover, based on a sample of 186 family businesses in China, Gao, Bai, and Shi (2011) explored the practice of transformational leadership style (i.e., moral modeling, vision articulation, individualized consideration, and leader charisma) in these businesses and examined its impact on employees’ commitment. The study results identified that a high level of transformational leadership has been adopted by the owners of these family businesses and the exercise of transformational leadership has a positive effect on promoting the family employees’ organizational commitment.

Professional and Expert Leadership

Professional and expert leadershipis congruent with the Confucian virtue of zhì (wisdom). Confucianism by itself means scholarism in Chinese (Feng, 1948), which advocates learning. In Confucianism, learning is regarded as the primary means by which a person acquires knowledge, wisdom, virtues, and moral rectitude (Cheung & Chan, 2005). Confucius advised people to learn not only by thinking and experiencing, but also through self-reflection. He said, “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous” (Confucius, trans, 1971, p.150) and “When we see men of worth, we should think of equaling them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves” (Confucius, 1971, trans, p.170).

Merit-based selection rests within Confucian values and traditions (Aufrecht & Li, 1995). In Confucian societies, learned people or scholars are considered to be the ideal leaders due to their learning, wisdom, competence, and moral virtues to govern the country (Bell, 1999). This is evidenced by civil service examinations that have been used to select talented and virtuous, learned scholars for the position of management and governance throughout the history of China (Aufrecht & Li, 1995).

According to Sergiovanni and Starratt (2002), professional authority or leadership is based on “the informed knowledge of the craft of [leading] and on the personal expertise of [leaders]” (p. 34) and the leader’s ability to make judgments based on the situations. The study by Cheung and Chan (2005) on Hong Kong business CEOs revealed that those CEOs emphasized the importance of continuing learning from others and of acquiring a variety of knowledge and even new knowledge. These CEOs’ leadership that is endowed with knowledge and wisdom greatly benefits their leadership effectiveness and business success.

Paternalistic, Bureaucratic, and Authoritarian Leadership

Paternalistic, bureaucratic, and authoritarian leadership approaches have the roots in Confucian virtues of (rites and rituals, rules of propriety), zhōng (loyalty), and xiào (filial piety or filial devotion), The essence of observance of , zhōng, and xiào is to implement the Confucian ideology of respecting authority and accepting hierarchy based upon which these three leadership approaches can be established and practiced.

Confucianism regards the state and the family as a unity, called Guó Jiā, with the family as a microcosm of the state and the state an enlargement of the family (Tu, 1999). In such a “state-family, the ruler’s relation to the subjects is like that of a father to his children” (Li, 2008, p. 176). Xiào (filial piety or filial devotion) and zhōng (loyalty) play important roles in maintaining and balancing various social relationships between parents and children and rulers and subordinates. Within the familiar society, the rulers act like parents who take care of the subordinates’ well-beings, forgive their mistakes, and help enhance their virtues, while the subordinates should show obedience and pledge loyalty toward the rulers.

In a Confucian society, social order and political stability are maintained through a system of (rites and rituals) and observance of (rules of propriety). Confucius emphasized the importance of observing in achieving self-fulfillment and social harmony. To attain perfect virtues and self-fulfillment, Confucius (trans, 1971) advised people, “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety.... Look not at what is contrary to propriety, listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety” (p. 250). To achieve social harmony, Confucius (trans, 1971) noted, “Respectfulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes timidity; boldness, without the rules of propriety, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the rules of propriety, becomes rudeness” (p. 208). The establishment and implementation of rules, regulations, and policies is indispensable for the effective leadership in organizations. However, the rigidity of policy implementation can only result in bureaucratic leadership practice which “relies heavily on hierarchy, rules and regulations, mandates, and clearly communicated role expectations as a way to provide [people] with a script to follow” (Sergiovanni & Starratt, 2002, p. 29).

Despite the essentiality of , has its negative implications of hierarchical relations for authoritarian leadership practice. designated the hierarchy of social relationships and the differentiation of roles and duties (Chan, 2008). The hierarchical social relationships were reflected in the five cardinal relationships called Wǔ Lún, i.e., ruler and minister, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. With Wǔ Lún regulating the human relationships, the ruler has absolute authority over the subjects and demands absolute loyalty from the subjects (Lin, 2008).

Confucian cultural tradition of respect to authority and acceptance of hierarchy was largely inherited and carried on by modern East Asian cultures. Pun, Chin, and Lau (2000) observed that Chinese management and organizations are shaped by collective orientation, social relations, paternalistic approach, and acceptance of hierarchy. In addition, Farh and Cheng (2000), in their cultural analysis of paternalistic leadership in Chinese business organizations, identified benevolence, moral leadership, and authoritarianism as three common elements that constitute paternalistic leadership.

Authoritarian leadership is no longer preferably accepted in contemporary East Asian organizations due to the universalization of liberal ideology and the democratization process of East Asian societies (Inoguchi & Newman, 1997). However, Lin (2008) summarized that authoritarianism or authoritarian leadership is manifested in at least the three aspects: giving directives for the subordinates to follow, centralized decision making, and large power distance. Also, studying the generalizability of leader behaviors (i.e. leader supportiveness, contingent reward, charismatic, participativeness, directiveness, and contingent punishment), among a total of 1,598 managers and professionals of large multinational or national companies located in the United States, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, Dorfman et al. (1997) indicated that leader directiveness has positive effects in Taiwan, which help clarify performance expectations and task assignment and thus increase subordinates’ satisfaction with supervision and reduce role ambiguity (Dorfman et al., 1997; Lin, 2008). In addition, Chen (1995) observed that due to a large power distance in Chinese organizations, leaders have more authority to make centralized decision making and expect subordinates’ implementation of decisions and they also have more authority to access and use organizational resources.

In 2001, Lee examined Confucian thought affecting leadership and organizational culture in South Korean higher education. His study showed that hierarchically authoritative leadership behaviors were practiced with a highly centralized closed system, age-ranking system, and masculine dominant culture being established throughout all Korean higher education institutions.

Closing Thoughts

Confucianism emphasizes the harmony and mutual consensus between human and nature and between persons (translated originally – man to man) (Kirkbride, Tang, & Westwood, 1991). One of the greatest goals of Confucianism was the achievement of social harmony, because the continuation and maintenance of harmonious relationships of members ensures the stability and solidarity of civil society (McDonald, 2011). Confucian virtues are conducive to the achievement of harmony and social stability (Xu, 2011). To achieve a harmonious social relationship, it is extremely important for every individual to observe and perform virtues. When rén (benevolence) and yì (righteousness) are instilled into the hierarchical system of social relationship (Chan, 2008) and when lǐ (rules of propriety) is observed and practiced with faithfulness, governance and social harmony can be achieved in a society.

In maintaining and achieving harmonious social relations and stability, leaders play the key role. In the Confucian ideal, leaders should be benevolent and humane to the followers; cultivate themselves according to rules of propriety, and lead by adopting moral persuasion and setting moral examples (Farh & Cheng, 2000). Confucius (trans, 1971) once stated, “He [She] who exercises government by means of his [her] virtue may be compared to the north polar star which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it” (p.145).

Despite the evidence of rapid growth in gross domestic product (GDP), people’s standard of living, and economic advancements (Robertson, 2000), Confucian Asian countries and societies continue to adhere to the Confucian cultural values that they have embraced for hundreds of years. The shared Confucian cultural values and traditions have played a significant part in the formation and development of East Asian leadership practices, which have been suggested to be beneficial to the economic successes of East Asian countries and regions (Collcutt, 1991). Therefore, constructing such a tangible emergent leadership model, the East Asian Leadership Model based on Confucian cultural values and traditions has significant implications for developing an ideal and desirable global leadership, enhancing the global capacities of leadership theories and practices, and achieving harmony and peace in the world.

Leadership as a social process is a universal phenomenon; however, theoretical concepts, styles, and practices related to leadership vary widely across Eastern and Western societies and cultures (Farh & Cheng, 2000). Despite the variety of leadership styles and practices, “globalization and localization of traditions and values call for proportionate advancement toward a more cooperative, more adjustable and more equitable world of nations and communities in order to sustain everlasting peace and harmony” (Cheng, 2011, p.649). Therefore, we recommend that researchers explore leadership practices in both Western and Eastern cultural contexts to advance the knowledge of global leadership and inform the implication for multicultural organizations. For this purpose, a hybrid leadership model may need to be developed and substantiated with empirical verification, in which East and West might meet and from which different nations and cultures might benefit.


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  1. Confucius (551 – 479 BCE), also known as Kǒng Qiū (given name), Zhòng Ní (social name), Kǒng Zǐ (Master Kong), was said to have been born in a poor but noble family in State Lu (near QuFu city in modern Shandong Province) during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). His name was later latinized as Confucius. As a philosopher, political figure, educator, and founder of the Ru (scholarism) School of Chinese thought, his social and political philosophy was based primarily on the virtue of rén, self-cultivation, natural morality, benevolent government, rectification of social relationships, righteousness, justice, and sincerity. His teachings were collected in The Analects, one of the Four Books of Confucianism (i.e., The Analects of Confucius (Lùn Yǔ), The Mencius (Mèng Zǐ), The Great Learning (Dà Xué), and The Doctrine of the Golden Mean (Zhōng Yóng)). The four books were the required textbooks for the imperial civil service examination in ancient China.

  2. Mencius (372-289 BCE) was a Chinese philosopher and one of the principal interpreters of Confucianism. He is best known for the theory of the idealism and the innate goodness of human nature. His teachings were collected in The Mencius, one of the Four Books of Confucianism.

  3. The Analects is the English translation of the Chinese book of Lún Yǔ. It was written and compiled approximately in 500 BCE by Confucius’ disciples based on Confucius’s teachings and the conversations between Confucius and his disciples. The book centers on Confucius’ thoughts and values on virtues, such as benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, trustworthiness, loyalty, forgiveness, filial piety, etc. The Analects was one of the Four Books of Confucianism.

  4. The Great Learning, originally one of the chapters in The Classic of Rites (Lǐ Jì), consists of a short main text attributed to Confucius and ten commentary chapters. The book focuses on the thoughts of self-cultivation, family regulations, state governing, and harmony seeking. The Great Learning (Dà Xué) is one of the Four Books of Confucianism.

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