Innovation and Leadership

Themed around “Innovation & Leadership,” the HYSTA annual conference, a signature event of the Silicon Valley premier Chinese entrepreneurial association, drew over 1,000 people at Hyatt Regency Hotel in Santa Clara on Saturday.

The conference brought together some impressive speakers and panelists, including the visionary venture capitalist John Doerr, to discuss the topic of leadership. Despite my hectic schedule, I managed to attend part of the conference. It turned out to be well worth the time. It’s very interesting to hear people talk about the growing pain of developing business leaders as China moves toward the global economy.

One of the challenges is that, although Chinese are very entrepreneurial, many of them focus on short-term gain and lack long term vision and perseverance. There is a real dearth of leaders who can lead organizations systematically to scale. One panelist pointed out, traditionally, Chinese culture rewards mediocre players rather than outstanding souls.

On the other hand, some people tried to transport the leadership skills learned in the United States to China. That doesn’t necessarily work either, because the leadership skills required in this environment are very different from the leadership skills required there. While there is no easy fix to these challenges, here are some take-aways from the panel that can shed some light:

  1. Although some leadership traits are born, leadership ability can be trained;
  2. Great leaders are the ones who want to make others successful;
  3. In order to become a leader, one needs to have self-knowledge;
  4. In today’s world, it’s important to know what’s happening around the world and be well-informed;
  5. It’s not what you say or do, but how you make other people feel that matters

The evening keynote by Mark Thompson, who is a friend of mine, was very inspiring. Mark interviewed over 200 the most successful people in the nation for his book Success Build to Last. He defines success for leaders as making meaningful impact that really matters.

While Chinese are working on their leadership challenges, Americans are wondering when China will take over the United States to become a global leader – that was the exact question from the audience. No one can answer this question easily. But I believe strongly that Americans and Chinese have different strengths that can be learned from both sides. They don’t have to be in competition; they can complement and balance each other to achieve a better world.

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10 thoughts on “Innovation and Leadership

  1. Ben,

    Thank you for your very insightful comment! I agree that unleashing those potentials within each individual is a way to develop leadership ability. After all, to become a leader is like to become a more integrated person. Leadership is one of my most favorite subject. I would love to read your book.

  2. I would disagree that truly superior leadership skills are not transferable between cultures. All humans have within themselves certain creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation and commitment. Unleashing these qualities through allowing people to develop a strong sense of ownership is the only way to gain truly exceptional performance.

    My knowledge comes from having successfully turned around four management disasters including a nuclear-powered cruiser and a 1300 person unionized group in New York City. Productivity gains north of 300% per person were achieved. These were all in the U.S., but many employees came from foreign cultures and they did not respond significantly differently than those from the U.S.

    Sounds like you must have had an interesting conference, Helen.

    Best regards, Ben

  3. Helen, I misled you a bit. The goal of all corporate leadership, IMHO, is to cause those being managed to unleash their full potential of creativity, innovation, etc. It is not a way to develop leaders. For them it is studying my book and then implementing its whats, whys and how tos.

    I have an electonic copy I can send you if you like.

  4. Helen, the list of leadership qualities is one of the clearest and best I’ve seen. Perhaps #3 could be amended to read: “…one needs to have self-knowledge and an deep appreciation of of cultural differences.” America has never won many prizes for understanding or appreciating cultural differences, a sad fact that is greatly influencing the present circumstances in Afganistan and Iraq. Our National Leadership there, as executed by our Military, recalls The Ugly American of the 50s and 60s.

    As I see it, the need to control is an intrinsic part of the desire to lead; the issue then becomes, is this need expressed in a benign and prosocial manner, or in Machiavellian, Orwellian, or Republican [oops, forgive me Lord, I didn’t mean to add that last one] ways. Your list does address the control aspect indirectly, it seems to me, in #2 and #5.

  5. Tony, I can see why you say the need to control is anintrinsic part of the desire to lead, but I believe one cannot be an effective leader if she/he doesn’t rise above that need, especially in today’s organic world. I think the truly great leaders have a sense of mission that they want to make a difference, and they want to make a meaningful impact that matters.

  6. This must have been a good conference. Thanks for sharing some of what you heard. You brought up an interesting issue in the transference of leadership skills across cultures. I think that to overlook (or, worse, deny) cultural differences in any area is insulting.

    I have worked for companies that cared about their employees as well as those that clearly did not. The best work and most productivity come from a satisfied (or, better yet, happy) workforce.

  7. Helen, great post. As a relatively new observer to China startups and VCs, I think there are some key differences between the China and US environment that drives good leaders to adapt that style. I’m curious to get your advice and comment on these ideas:

    1. Pre-legal environment
    In general, China has a much less predictable legal environment. Its much easier to take intellectual property from your employer and start a competing company, without the company really having any legal recourse. That is why I think many traditional Chinese leaders have held know-how, customer relationships, etc. very very close to the vest, to insure employees are dependent on them. I think this is rational, but needs to be coupled with the habits of a Western, collaborative environment in order to generate better team based results.

    2. individual vs. team. I’ve heard from Chinese CEOs that employees are much better at individual competition than cooperation as a team. One theory (I think from James McGregor) is that the Chinese education system is examination based, and there is a much lower focus on team sports and other extracurricular activities that Americans are exposed to early on. Young Chinese employees want to learn, and are very open to Western management style, but need to be provided the training.

    3. Communication. There seems to be an opportunity for leaders to coach team members and employees on communication, both inside and outside the company. This is related to the team point above.

    4. Hierarchical. Possibly related to the educational system point above, traditional Chinese businesses are much more hierarchical. Therefore, people expect to take direction in a corporate environment. Is being an open, collaborative leader interpreted as a sign of weakness, rather than strength? On the other hand, I’ve also heard returnee CEOs say that managing people in China is easier because people take direction!

    5. Training and education. One similarity is that people want to feel invested in. I think a rich set of training/education tactics, and habits of identifying high-retention people and investing in them, is highly valued in China.

    I’d like to further dialogue on this and see if we can develop an even better, clearer framework! You can see my blog at

    If you have anything else to share from the HYSTA conference I would value it – I flew back from China the day before and missed the conference!

  8. Elliot,

    Thank you for your comment. You have very good points. I agree training and education, coupled with local know-how, are the key to grow business leaders in China. In particular, I see the local know-how is very critical for businesses to navigate through the unpredictable legal environment. As you mentioned, communication and team-building are also important. There definitely exists a need for coaching.

    Because there are many copy-cat competitions, I believe China is more an execution play rather than technology play (from VC investment point of view).

    Would love to get together for coffee or lunch to hear more about what you learned in China.

  9. That is a remarkable blog post on learning. I really liked the way you have expained the thoughts in this article. Thanks a lot for this type of nice writeup. Is there more information on leadership in IT. I am focused on studying this topic more from IT perspective and want to appreciate your attempts.

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