Skip links

Are you a value-creating leader?

The East and the West. What could more eloquently express the tangible and palpable divide between the two? Much has been said about the difference in culture, style,  aesthetics, philosophy, and schools of thought in the East and in the West.

Center for Asia Leadership Teaching Fellow Helen van Baal, programme lead at the HPI School of Design Thinking (d-school), shares her sharp observations about how groups in Asia and those she has encountered in the West work. She draws insights from Carl von Clausewitz’s analysis of military strategy, which she describes as “planning followed by implementation.” In many settings, she noticed how Westerners like to talk things out and seem to find solutions by discussing different angles or perspectives. This style is in contrast with people from Asia, for example, who are at home with working with their hands and zeroing in on solutions through actual prototyping and visual representations. Much like Sun Tzu’s Art of War, an ancient military treatise that focuses not so much on planning and execution but on spotting behavioral and psychological opportunities.   

Van Baal, who has done consulting and training work with Deutsche Bank and Daimler-Benz, notes that leadership requires both planning and “thinking with one’s hands” to create value. The full chapter “Reflections on Design Thinking in Asia” can be found in Rethinking Asia 4: Why Asia is Hopeful.

The Executive Leadership School was a program that we ran in Kuala Lumpur. Working professionals of diverse industries and ranks came together to take a deep dive into what leadership means in today’s context and why it was so important that we formed a new understanding and practice of it, especially in our personal and organizational settings. What I liked about this program was that the participants came equipped with rich experience, expertise, and lessons to share.

For the ELS, my colleague Craig Brimhall and I designed a workshop that combined elements of DT with the concept of embracing diversity. Initially, we had planned to conduct two separate workshops, but we soon realized that we might both benefit if we combined them and approached the more abstract topic of diversity in an applied DT way. We set up the room so that the participants had to divide into four teams. As this was a new format, we were excited and enjoyed designing it. At the same time, I was a little nervous because of my previous experience working with executives, who were skeptical and resistant. I knew it would take convincing arguments to get the teams to leave their comfort zone and start exploring previously unthinkable ideas—not to mention the difficulty of persuading these experienced professionals to build prototypes out of play-dough and pipe cleaners.

A few days into the workshop, we knew it was going well. Craig and I were learning a lot, and the participants were interested and exploring both DT and diversity in new ways. By introducing new tools, playing warm-up games, and prompting quick, unprepared presentations, we were gently pushing them out of their comfort zone.

Finally, we got to the prototyping phase. This phase was the hardest for people who were used to creating value through long discussions, PowerPoints, and sitting around meeting-room tables. I had prepared my arguments carefully and revisited them again just before my introduction to prototyping. I emphasized that this stage allows you to learn and to make mistakes early on, which eventually will save you time and money. I explained that because it allows you to communicate your idea and get real, valuable feedback, it helps to speed up your project.

When I finished my presentation, everyone immediately started getting material and building prototypes. Convincing them had been surprisingly easy. Usually, this was one of the hardest parts for me as a coach. I had been prepared to push the participants to leave their comfort zone, to coax them into making the transition from thinking and talking to making and building. Why was it easy this time around?

Stepping back, I observed the teams and quickly realized that there was a difference in the prevalent team dynamic, compared with other professional groups I had worked with. All of the teams at the ELS had a natural way of collaborating, which didn’t involve much talking. Working with professionals in Europe and the U.S., I had often observed a reluctance to move from talking to making. Sometimes teams would even move back from the prototyping space to a table to continue debating their idea. Here in Asia, however, the teams seemed to work better and more constructively while building their prototypes. Even though their ideas weren’t mature yet—prototyping can be a powerful tool to develop an idea as well as to visualize it. The teams seemed confident in building them.

While the ideation and synthesis phases often require decision-making and discussion, during prototyping a more fluid and organic interaction came into play. The team members were still making decisions, but they did so by visualizing and, quite literally, building on each other’s ideas. To some extent, I would argue that Eastern cultures were more comfortable with this way of working than Western cultures, which tend to be more comfortable in discussing and debating a focus point or idea.

A slightly more academic explanation can be drawn from military strategy. The classic Western approach can be traced back to Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) and his analysis On War, in which he describes military strategy as “planning followed by implementation.” Given the rise of engineering and science in the nineteenth century, it is not surprising that this very technical framework found a large following in Europe after his death. But the Eastern approach to military strategy is very different. One of the most frequently cited sources, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a Chinese general from the 5th century BCE, describes thirty-six strategies that are not technical but are rather illustrations of behavioral opportunities.

At the ELS, I realized that the teams’ approach to prototyping in DT was much closer to Sun Tzu’s take on strategy than to the Western way of planning first and executing afterwards. While it would be far too generalized to say that every professional in Europe or the West still follow von Clausewitz’s technical approach to strategy, I was fascinated to discover that DT teams in the East clearly felt more comfortable working visually.

Regardless of the approach that you take as a leader, in the 21st-century leadership means not only providing guidance and enabling others but also creating value. In our increasingly complex world, those who hold leadership positions must be able to both direct and to create. Providing solutions means being able to make and build them, not just discuss about them. A better word can only be created if all of our leaders understand this. As a designer, creating is inherent to my work and being, and I have found DT a good means of encouraging people in other disciplines to start creating as well.

That ease with which the ELS delegates approached prototyping is something I wished many Western executives could observe. By thinking with their hands, the teams didn’t only achieve better outcomes and ideas; they also demonstrated problem-solving as an essential leadership skill.

More and more, an increasingly complex world with a host of disruptors demands that leaders not just brainstorm and sift through ideas but actually try things out. Creating value means rolling up one’s sleeves and creating a “fail fast, learn fast” culture that finds solutions that work.

By Helen van Baal