Seeing Wisdom in Others


An important characteristic of wisdom is recognizing wisdom in the thoughts and actions of others. Sometimes we have trouble doing that when the wisdom comes from outside our community and looks different from our “brand” of wisdom. This can create barriers to finding integrative solutions that require us to broaden our horizons and embrace ideas that don’t easily align with our existing perspectives.


Working with people from other cultures can seem a bit bewildering at times. You can often find yourself thinking and sometimes exclaiming a decision seems to make “no sense.” Many times, once we understand the decision making process, we see a certain universal and explainable logic. Our goals are not so different, we just get there a different way.


Frank Gallo’s subtitle for his book, Business Leadership in China, caught my attention and led to the purchase.  “How to blend best Western practices with Chinese Wisdom” captured an approach that leaders who desire to operate globally should work hard to develop and practice.  Leaders need to ask how do you take what is best from your experiences and combine it with what is best from another culture. As Gallo’s subtitle suggest it starts by recognizing and appreciating the wisdom a different leadership approaches possesses.


One of the Chinese executives interviewed for the book tells the story of an ancient Chinese king who is about to retire. The king is beloved by both his subjects and his generals and hopes the same for his son. The king tells his most trusted general he is being reassigned to a remote region. The general is disappointed and confused. A year later the son becomes the king and recalls the general to the capitol. The general is very appreciative and grateful to the new king.  The old king knew the events would play out this way and result in the loyalty of the powerful general which would be very important to his son.   The Chinese executive commented that the king’s indirect approach brought about the desired solution better than a more direct one practiced in the West. 


A leadership or decision making approach may not be necessarily right or wrong, but one approach may be more aligned with the thinking of the people you are trying to influence. A leader’s inability to understand how others interpret the leader’s logic and motives usually leads to unexpected negative outcomes.  A desire to serve others and to add value starts with understanding.


From a Western perspective, empowerment is a necessary and desired leadership approach and generally indicates the leader’s confidence in the other person and a genuine desire to help them develop. After delegating more responsibility to a team member, the Western leader probably feels that a closer and more trusting relationship has been established. Gallo notes quite a different reality, especially in the initial phases of a Western supervisor- Chinese subordinate relationship. A more likely response from the subordinate would be confusion and skepticism with questions like, “Why is the boss asking me to do something that is his job? Does he not know how to do it or is he trying to make me fail?”  


Empowerment is not wrong but may require communicating with greater context to connect with strongly held beliefs by the other person.  Leaders may need to consider cultural components related to how is failure handled and blame assigned, how is trust established, and how does the leader establish high levels of credibility and competence. All of these will influence the perception of empowerment.


Gallo highlights an area of leadership, “leading with the heart,” that is valued in both China and the West but is expressed similarly and differently. A deep sense of caring for employees is noted among the most respected attributes of leaders in both cultures. Chinese employees do not necessarily expect their boss to be friendly in the way Western employees expect a more informal relationship. But they desire leaders to genuinely put the needs of their employees as a priority.  One Chinese executive phrased it this way, “we want that caring to be genuine, not just something that a leader has learned to do.” In both cultures, the serving leader is desired but not commonly found.


There is much to be appreciated in the holistic, patient, and thoughtful approach to problem solving and leadership found in Chinese wisdom. Similarly, there are benefits offered around independence and innovation best practices from the West. When leaders start with humility and a deep desire to serve, they are much more likely to discover the right approaches to lead in global environments and experience a much more enjoyable and richer journey.