The China Leadership Dilemma

Over the past ten years, China has continued to intensify its visibility and influence on the global stage. Whether your arena is geopolitics, macroeconomics, or international commerce; it is likely your concern and attention towards China continues to increase, and if you have vested interests in an any of these arenas, it is also possible that you regularly experience the China Leadership Dilemma.

Within your local sphere of influence, you are successful and have a long list of accomplishments, so you are naturally selected by your organization to lead its global initiatives.

Before engaging with or moving abroad, you proceed with your usual due diligence and the SOPs (standard operating procedures) that have always guided your success.

China Leadership Dilemmas, or CLDs, can manifest in any unexpected disappointment, in any relationship, and for any situation, but its most profound occurrences are when Western leaders leverage their personal experiences to achieve strategic outcomes in China.

Global Leadership Challenges

According to McKinsey Quarterly, developing global leaders noted that 76% of senior executives surveyed believe their organizations need to develop global-leadership capabilities, but only 7% think they are currently doing so very effectively. McKinsey also cites that some 30% of US companies admit that they have failed to exploit their international business opportunities fully because of insufficient internationally competent personnel.

Also, McKinsey Quarterly noted in “What’s missing in leadership development?” that although there is no silver bullet for successfully developing leaders, the actions that matter most focused on leadership behavior, and had an 8.1 times impact on performance, the most of all other targeted interventions.

Known Unknowns

In the case of China, you know you don’t speak Mandarin Chinese, so you hire a private language instructor (to demonstrate goodwill), an executive assistant (to provide local insights), and a professional interpreter for the important occasions.

You are not sure about Chinese culture, habits, and customs, so you immerse yourself in books, take some classes, and hire consultants to help you prepare for complex negotiations.

You prepare yourself and your family, and your adventure into China begins. You are warmly welcomed with open arms, everyone genuinely seems to want to support your success, and there is no shortage of friendly advice coming from stakeholders at all levels.

Natural Progression

After a brief honeymoon period, issues begin landing on your desk with no solutions. You start to observe a local company culture that doesn’t quite align with your global principles, so you initiate more team building activities and HR initiatives to connect incentives with performance. You hire consultants to evaluate existing processes and implement new performance management systems.

You stress transparency and accountability and develop new metrics to assess how your leadership team is performing in those regards.

After an extended period, you believe you understand the issues and challenges. You begin to assign blame, complain about government policies, and attribute other external factors for less than stellar performance. Your boss on the other side of the ocean begins to struggle with throwing more good money after bad, and you begin to digress that Chinese culture is very complex and mysterious, and henceforth begin to set lower expectations. You start to consider the hidden costs of doing business in China.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? If so, you are experiencing the China Leadership Dilemma.

Unknown Unknowns

You begin to realize that the things you did not know you did not know are the source of your difficulties. You wish someone had coached or advised you more about yourself and how your actions, based on your attitude, mindset, and approach (AMA Values), might be perceived differently than expected by those of a foreign culture.

You slowly begin to understand in a business context that thinking in a linear fashion leads to unnecessary tension with those who by nature think more circular, more holistically.

China Leadership Dilemmas

  • Dilemma #1 – Your suggestions are clear, rational, and strategic; but the responses you receive seem to miss the main points
  • Dilemma #2 – Your gestures demonstrate genuine care and concern, but the lack of appreciation and acknowledgment is confusing
  • Dilemma #3 – Your proposals are clearly articulated, fair, and generous; but the inability to agree and align is perplexing

And the primary origin of these dilemmas, in case you haven’t figured it out, is you. It is all internal. It is your myopia. It is your lack of self-awareness, cultural-awareness, situational-awareness, and empathy that leads to an unhealthy attitude, mindset and approach towards business interactions in China.

The good news is your AMA Values (attitude, mindset, approach), as we call them, can be adjusted to achieve better outcomes. It just requires a little imagination coupled with some purpose-driven curiosity.

In the future, I will also be sharing a series of cross-cultural performance insights and tips that specifically address each one of the China Leadership Dilemmas (CLDs).


  • FREE Mindset for China Business (MFCB) – live webinars beginning on July 25, 2018. Learn about the GUANXI Engine that empowers all relationships in China, understand Chinese giving and receiving of FACE in the proper cultural context, and develop a framework for achieving more favorable outcomes across all business and personal engagements. 
  • CLD NATION – Facebook Group, a fellowship, dedicated to assisting companions on a journey towards cross-cultural performance mastery — developing and employing soft skills to achieve more predictable and favorable outcomes.
  • Orange County (OC) China Business Forum – Meetup Group in Southern California

Moving Forward

Let’s connect: I am looking to connect with more people who have experienced varying degrees of CLDs, to hear your stories, and to socialize how greater cultural awareness, self-awareness, and empathy might lead to better outcomes.

Click here to connect with me.

Join our community: Want to join our growing community of cross-cultural performance masters? We will soon launch a China Leadership Dilemma Facebook Page to complement our 7K+ Meetup group members currently active in Shanghai, China and Orange County, California.


You will receive exclusive invitations to EME Meetup events, group coaching sessions, online courses, videos, blog posts, China Business 101 lessons, and more…

2 thoughts on “The China Leadership Dilemma

  1. I can totally relate to some of the points you mentioned in the article. I’m a Westerner living and working in Hong Kong and as a newcomer to the city, I could observe the China Leadership Dilemmas. My boss would blame anything and everything related to China when it comes to his misfortunes with his business. He not once took accountability for his own actions and lack of cultural awareness.

    • Hi Simeon, thanks for sharing your insights with us. We always suggest for people like your boss to take a look in the mirror to find solutions to complex cross-cultural challenges.

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