The 5 Paradoxes of Leadership Development in Asia

o achieve success, learn from failure. It may be in the parlance of early Asian philosophy, but the phrase is one of five key findings from a recent joint study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and the Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI) on how to accelerate leadership development in Asia.

Paradox #1: To achieve success, learn from failure
One of the findings hitherto mentioned was that leaders learn and grow from their failures. Failure played a great role in the growth and development of the top leaders interviewed for the study and was mentioned as something that would help in the development of future top leaders. Effective top leaders should be able to deal with failure and learn from mistakes as part of their leadership journey - reflecting on setbacks, learning lessons from negative experiences and growing stronger.

Paradox #2: To develop greatness, practise humility
Effective leaders model humility and constantly learn from others. Humility was a necessary component of intellectual curiosity and an essential component of fostering a learning culture within an organisation. The research presented several examples of genuine humility from top leaders in spite of their impressive career histories, and the importance of a humble attitude as a foundation for constant learning.

For example, a top leader from Olam, when asked about his biggest impact on his direct reports, replied that they had taught him as much as he had taught them. This was a signal to his team that one can learn from multiple sources and not just from people at the top. Such behaviour highlighted the impact that top leaders can have in modelling constant learning.

Paradox #3: To foster learning, emphasise doing
When asked what contributed to their personal leadership development, the majority of leaders mentioned adversity and crisis. A senior leader recounted a volatile labour strike that erupted while he was leading an Indonesian unit. Being a Singaporean, he was not used to strikes of this nature. Worried about the safety of his team, he suggested they all return home. His concern for the team's safety instead led them to stay and help with negotiations, and tensions were later defused. The study had revealed that leadership development truly occurred when classroom learning was applied in the field and this example illustrated clearly that leadership development did not take place only in the classroom.

Paradox #4: To accelerate development, slow down
Rotational assignments were frequently used to provide experiences in different functions, geographies and roles, helping future leaders to develop a wider perspective and fostering effective networks. Due to the paucity of future top leaders, some firms might feel the pressure to rapidly develop leaders by "over-promoting" staff and rotating them through many assignments in a short period of time. This could lead to a lack of time for reflection and to experience the impact of their decisions.

While multiple experiences were necessary for leadership development, organisations had the tendency to rapidly move people into different positions without giving them room to breathe. The organisations interviewed saw the importance of giving their leaders time to slow down and reflect on their experiences. For example, while Olam believes in grooming their leaders through challenging assignments, they also recognise the need to build in processes to encourage reflection and learning. As part of their formal programmes, Unilever also builds in a component for deep reflection.

Paradox #5: To excel at the task, harness relationships
Relationships are important everywhere, but especially so in Asia. The best leaders are authentic in their interactions with others and not only build good relationships with people within the organisation, but are also plugged in to key networks outside the organisation. Those best able to build and harness these relationships are most likely to operate at the highest levels.

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