Leadership a cultural cloth cut for the times

By Catherine Norwood

Understanding the social and historical influences that shape leadership ideals could do much to help smooth country-to-country business relationships, says international study from Swinburne University of Technology.

Mahatma Gandhi is widely acknowledged as one of the world's most influential leaders - a social justice campaigner who inspired generations of civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jnr and Nelson Mandela. But a leader such as Gandhi can only emerge when particular cultural and social conditions converge, says Professor Chris Selvarajah from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.

In different circumstances Gandhi may well have remained just another expatriate lawyer. The leadership style and values that Gandhi drew on would not be effective because India today is vastly different to India of the 1930s and 1940s. Professor Selvarajah believes that cultural and environmental factors strongly influence what we perceive as excellence in leadership.

He has launched an international study to improve understanding between nations about the way cultural, political and religious influences have shaped their leaders and, in turn, help smooth trade and business relations.

The Asian Perspectives in Excellence in Leadership (APEL) project is a collaboration with colleagues in 20 Asia-Pacific countries. It was initially launched in 1995 with a pilot study in five ASEAN countries. Individual Asian nation profiling started in 2004, with profiles completed on leadership values in Cambodia, China, Malaysia and Thailand. Similar data collection is now under way in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Laos, New Zealand, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Surveys in China and Cambodia have already identified generational differences in perceptions of leadership excellence. Older generation Chinese managers consider personal qualities - such as morality, good communication, trustworthiness, and respect for tradition and the social order - to be of high importance. Managers with less than five years' experience are more individualistic and attach less importance to personal qualities. "This suggests that … people who grew up in [China] before modernisation began 25 years ago think very differently to younger managers," he says.

Professor Selvarajah hopes findings from the study might be used to create new approaches in management and business programmes for participating countries and for Australia, which is training an increasing number of international students - effectively the next generation of business and social leaders throughout the Asia-Pacific region. In 2008 there were more than half a million international students studying in Australia. Among the top 10 nations represented were China, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and more than 54 percent of all international students chose management or commerce-related courses.

Professor Selvarajah says the research results could allow businesses to more effectively select employees who have the characteristics or skills identified as representing leadership excellence. It could also allow nations to encourage different aspects of leadership that may not have rated highly among current managers, but which are emerging as national priorities, such as the ability to monitor external influences, adopt new technologies, and identify and develop competitive avantages.
Professor Selvarajah says a profile of Australian leadership values will be included in the project, although it is last on his list of countries to survey. In addition to work completed and under way, he is still to collect data from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Brunei.

Read the full article online at

About Swinburne University of Technology

  • Established in 1908.
  • Main campus 10-15 minutes from Melbourne's city centre.
  • The best university in Melbourne for Teaching Quality and Graduate Satisfaction (Good Universities Guide 2010).
  • Ranked in the world's top 500 universities by the Times Higher Education.

Swinburne University of Technology has been educating students for over 100 years. We've grown into a multidisciplinary, multi-campus institution, with more than 27,000 full-time students, including 6000 international students. Swinburne College can give you a great start to university in Australia. We have a range of degree transfer programmes in business, design, engineering and information technology. All of these are designed to prepare international students for direct entry to Swinburne University of Technology.

Find out more at
Source: David Samuel, Australian Trade Commission, Colombo-Sri Lanka.

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