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Do leaders have to choose? Words vs. action

Is leadership primarily about words or actions? Without thinking too much, one would probably say that both matter. But culturally, there is a marked difference between what people intuitively think a leader should be: a man/woman of inspiring words or of quiet action. It’s ideal to think that a leader will know both how to move people with words and how to concretely deliver on rosy promises. The reality is in the West there tends to be an emphasis on powerful figures giving rousing speeches while people in Asia, particularly in countries like China, the stress is on men and women of action.  

The following is a candid excerpt on how 21st-century leaders cannot be boxed into only one category. To handle the tangled problems of today, they need both the hard skills of technical expertise, administration, and management. But they also need a flair for connecting to stakeholders, communicating with empathy, and listening to people’s needs. Written by Zhoulai Zhu, the full chapter “Shanghai” is taken from the Acumen Publishing book Rethinking Asia 1: Education and Innovation.


My father used to quote an old Chinese parable to me as a bedtime story: “If a man carrying half a bucket of water passes you by, you can hear all kinds of water sputtering. If, however, he carries a full bucket of water, it will be much quieter.” When it is only half full, the bucket is lighter and is likely to shake back and forth, whereas a full bucket will be steady because it becomes heavier. I grew up believing that truly erudite people avoid showing off their knowledge and that people who talk too much tend to be dilettantes. Among all the Trekkers, I was the quietest. My Chinese gut told me not to throw out careless questions or to offer comments in important meetings unless they were meaningful and well-framed; otherwise, I would be no better than a half-filled bucket of water.

This parable came to mind in our meeting with Mr. Chen, when he said that some Chinese officials do not know how to deal with the media. It is an argument he made to explain the public’s possible bias towards the government when Maria Syms (a trekker and a lawyer and government official from Arizona, U.S.) asked for advice on how to restore people’s confidence in their government. Many Trekkers were skeptical about his answer, given that politicians tend to be skilled orators and lobbyists. Even Mr. Chen himself handled the Q&A section skillfully, suggesting that he knows his way around the media. But his argument is one I can relate to.

Publicly awkward

Whenever I turn on the news in the U.S., I see politicians giving speeches, but when I turn on the TV in China, I usually see leaders smiling and waving. On the rare occasions when they do give speeches, they tend to speak stiltedly, as if reading scripts prepared by their secretaries.

This public awkwardness is a built-in flaw in Chinese leadership. While the elected leaders of the Western world have survived a war of words after running their election campaigns, the Chinese criteria for selecting leaders, although more comprehensive, does not test its leaders’ public speaking and communication skills. These are not key qualities that Chinese people look for in their leaders. We might even prefer those who do not speak much, for they seem in consequence more down-to-earth. In a culture where people pay more attention to results than process, actions speak louder than words, for actions are concrete and words are elusive. Most Chinese political leaders study physics, chemistry, or engineering in college, while Western leaders tend to come from majors such as law or other social sciences that lead to greater fluency in public speaking. The disadvantage of having less eloquent leaders, however, is that their stilted speech often makes them appear less creative and spontaneous.

Creativity in China

I was therefore surprised on the Trek when we visited Frog Design, a global innovation firm with headquarters in Shanghai, at how positive they are about the creativity of the Chinese people. As one (non-Chinese) senior manager told us: “I’ve never seen so much creativity anywhere else in the world. But the Chinese just need to learn how to professionalize it.” Many parents in China fret that students are graduating without the critical and creative skills necessary to compete globally.

There is a growing public concern that our system’s high stakes exams and emphasis on rote learning do not cultivate the mental agility and innovative flair needed for preparing 21st-century citizens. Frog’s confidence in the creativity of this region, however, has changed my perspective. I now believe that Chinese people are lacking not creativity but rather the ability to broadcast their amazing ideas to the people around them.

When I was an undergraduate in China, I saw an article on Renren that poured scorn on a man who got a master’s degree from Harvard. The author of the article was upset by the Harvard man’s flamboyant speeches on how he had gotten into Harvard, which he gave throughout the country and which had attracted thousands of followers on Weibo (Chinese Twitter). “And guess what?” said the article on Renren. “He is only average in his academic performance in Harvard. What a humiliation to all the Chinese students in his class!”

Hard & soft skills

The article got more than ten thousand hits, and most of the comments piled on the criticism. The first time I read the article, I agreed with it fully. However, when I came across this article again last year, I still understood the derogatory comments, but I began to think that they might not be correct. Now that I am at Harvard myself, I’ve started to think about what defines a truly good education. Here at Harvard, both students and professors see great value in public speaking and the communication of ideas; they care less about the grades that students receive.

In Kuala Lumpur and Seoul, I helped Daniel Wallance, another Trekker, facilitate the Public Narrative workshop, which conveys the message that storytelling and effective communication are critical for great leadership. If you can communicate well and articulate your ideas, you will be able to collaborate with others and inspire groups to face their challenges. Going through all these workshops, I became convinced that Chinese people need to resist some parts of their entrenched cultural mentality and learn how important it is to express oneself clearly and fluently. Being capable of balancing soft skills and hard skills should be a goal for 21st-century citizens.


By Zhoulai Zhu