7 Rules For Western Executives Leading Teams In Eastern Cultures

Navigate cultural differences and maximise success.


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Last updated: March 21st, 2024

leadership differences east vs west

Last updated: March 21st, 2024

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I have been fortunate in my career to lead large teams across the globe, including multi-year stints on the ground in India and China, where I was responsible for several thousand employees.

People often ask me about leadership differences between the West and India/China. 

Specifically, how should leaders from the West adapt their style to be successful?

Whilst I am hesitant to generalise too much, below are 7 lessons I have learnt on the journey.

1. Recognise That Trust Is Earned And Not Given.

Many western leaders confuse respect for hierarchy, which is undoubtedly more pronounced in the East, with a willingness to go the extra mile for their manager. 

The reality is that they are very different.

  • In the West, trust in a manager is usually implied.
  • In the East, it has to be built bottom up. 

I remember very clearly my new leader assimilation in China, where one of my team asked, “how do I earn your trust” to which I answered, “you start with 100% trust, it can only go down”. 

The whole team looked at me like I was from another planet. 

Too many abuses of trust have happened in recent China history for trust to be assumed, so leaders must work doubly hard to show they care for the team and their interests. 

Whilst it takes longer, the good news is that once teams do trust their leader, they are incredibly loyal and will go well beyond the call of duty to make that leader successful.

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2. A Growth Leadership Mindset Matters. 

By growth, I mean top line. 

When I moved from leading the UK business to leading the India business, I talked about the EBITDA improvements I had driven as a means of establishing my credentials. 

It had the opposite effect.

The thinking in India and China is that if you spend a lot of time on cost management, you are short of ideas on how to grow the top line. 


Opportunities abound in fast-growing economies, so the leadership mindset has to shift very quickly to “how can I fund and resource as many of these opportunities as I can” and ensure the strategy has a healthy mix of both short-term and long-term bets. 

Cost management and productivity are, of course, also important.

Still, the starting point has to be “how can I maximise topline growth and create a sustainable, healthy environment to reward and grow the team?” 

A simple but important pivot.

(Related: The State Of Social Enterprise In Australia).

3. It’s All About Face. 

Although there is currently some hype around Chinese youth “lying flat”, the vast majority of employees work extremely hard and want to be successful and also be seen to be successful. 

The latter, in particular, sets India and China apart from the West. 

Perception matters a lot. It’s all about face. 

It’s not just the employee that has to feel good about the company – the employee’s family also has to feel good about it. 

Social media is prolific, employees want to share their awards, talk about exciting innovations their company has brought to market, and demonstrate that they have made good use of their education. 

Leadership Tip.

Leaders must tap into this psyche, ensuring the right opportunities and recognition. 

A downside is that “turnaround assignments” are more difficult to sell to employees, as they often have many options and don’t want to take the potentially career-threatening risk of being seen to be in charge of something unsuccessful.

As a leader, you must work hard to explain the benefits and learning that comes with such an assignment and reassure that the potential reward far outweighs the risk.

Again, establishing trust is very important here.

4. Beware Of The Meeting Outside The Meeting. 

In the West, we are used to getting all the views out on the table and making decisions in the meeting. 

In the East, you have to work very hard to create an inclusive and risk-free environment where everyone can express their honest view. 

More often than not, the meeting is more about hearing out the leader. 

Then the real discussion and lobbying happen in small groups afterwards, with a sole representative eventually talking to the leader one-on-one about what the group thinks and what decision should be made. 

  • Whilst this seems alien to most Western managers, it can be a very effective way of getting to the right decision point. 
  • However, if you want to avoid the meeting outside the meeting, be clear up-front about expectations and make sure you actively include everyone in the discussion.

(Related: 4 Pillars Of Transformational Leadership).

5. Don’t Judge Someone By The Quality Of Their Business Case. 

In the West, we put a big premium on being articulate and being able to explain why something is a good idea. We are taught that story matters.

In the East, the focus is much more on the idea itself. 

I have seen so many brilliant ideas in India and China not get traction because the story was not compelling.

As Western leaders working in the East, we must be very attuned to this, ensuring we support the best ideas and not just the best stories. 

Coaching top talent to improve confidence and communication skills is incredibly rewarding and should be a priority for leaders, especially those operating within multinational corporations.

6. India And China Speed Is Real.

It’s difficult to grasp this until you experience it. 

India and China are evolving rapidly. In the last 10 years their combined GDP has grown by 110% compared to 19% in the rest of the world.

Technology adoption and new business models are at the forefront of the economy, and the competitive environment is intense. 

In this context, fast decision-making is critical. Get ready to make decisions over WhatsApp or WeChat at a moment’s notice. 

Agility can be a differentiator in the West. However, it is a base expectation in the East. 

It’s incumbent on leaders to do everything they can to unblock processes and complexity that get in the way of fast decision-making.  

For example, be mindful that heavily matrixed organisations and multiple global reporting lines are often part of why multinational firms in India and China are out-manoeuvred by local players. 

The speed is exhilarating, but be ready to be “always on”.

7. Don’t Pretend To Be The Market Expert.

Never forget you won’t know the market or culture as well as your team. You can be the expert in your home country, but not when you’re away from home.

Admit that early on.

The team will respect you more, and it will ground your thinking, ensuring you surround yourself with the right experts to help you make the right calls.

It is, however, very important to build your knowledge and show a willingness to learn. 

  • Shortly after I arrived in India, one of my team gave me a book called “the argumentative Indian” which I devoured to help me better understand meeting dynamics.  
  • In China, I did a lot of knowledge-building before I got to the market.

On my video introduction call to my new team, before I landed in the market, I showed several books I was reading.

I didn’t think too much of it, but that memory was played back by my team time and time again in the following years as the proof they were looking for that I was going to be a humble leader.

Learning about local culture can, of course, be really fun as well.

Throw yourself into karaoke with the team in China. Dance like crazy with the team in India. They will love it … and so will you!

Bottom Line About Leadership Differences Between East vs West.

These lessons, of course, aren’t comprehensive, but hopefully they will help fast-track the learning process for leaders moving from Western markets to India and China. 

Let me also stress that whilst there are differences in leadership, there are also many similarities, my advice for leaders is always to be authentic, empathic, strategic and empowering. 

Such traits will stand you in good stead everywhere.


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