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New Global Leaders, New Leadership Models?

Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) is helped with his headphone next to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) at the G8 Summit meeting in Sapporo, Japan on July 8, 2008. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) is helped with his headphone next to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) at the G8 Summit meeting in Sapporo, Japan on July 8, 2008. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Co-presented by the Aspen Institute

NEW DELHI, July 27, 2009 - The rise of China and India on the global stage makes it imperative to study both countries' leadership models, according to Asia Society President Vishakha N. Desai. In a wide-ranging talk moderated by Ravi Bhoothalingam, Chairman and CEO of Manas Advisory, Desai compared Chinese and Indian leadership styles and explored at length how they differ from both Western models and from each other.

Desai pointed out that the topic under discussion was relevant because of the inevitability of India and China's rise on the global stage. Already there are signs of geopolitical and geo-economic shifts in the world order, and the two countries' leadership models will inform this shift to a large extent. The fact that the global economic crisis isn't being felt as acutely in India or China as it is in the US is further indicative of the coming changes.

Tracing the traditional sources of leadership models, Desai pointed out that one of the biggest difference between Western nations and India and China us the notion of the "self." In Western countries, the Enlightenment and developments in the 19th century helped create a sense of self that is individualistic, and a unit in itself. In India and China, on the other hand, the sense of self is relational, that is, the self is defined in relationship to others. This notion of self also comes up in early Indian and Chinese texts and mythology. In China, a leader leads by example, embodied in the concept of Wu Wei.  This means that a leader does not have to do anything, but simply lead by example. Desai quoted that a ruler who rules by virtue is comparable to a pole star to which other stars pay homage. The Confucian ruler can hence transform people through his moral command. The ruler’s activities are expressions of his moral value systems. She pointed out that the ruler in both India and China is, interestingly, always defined as a "he."

In India, leadership is seen as a duty or "dharma" or obligation towards the people. This was manifest in the battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas when Krishna advised Arjuna to fight even his cousins and other family members since it was his dharma to fight.

While in China the leader stands apart from the people, in India the leader is of the people, but leading because of duty. Yet in each model, leadership is defined on the basis of the leader’s relation to people around him. The Chinese model of a leader who cannot be seen may be seen by some as more passive, in contrast to the Western model which is engaged and interactive. However, it is possible that much strength lies in that passive style of leadership also.

Desai went on to add that Mao Tse Tung may, however, be considered an exception to the Confucian model of leadership because he looked to break away from the past. The one thing in China many people talk about is the need to not have a charismatic leader. For his part, Hu Jintao tried to bring back the earlier Chinese model of staying grounded with the people, not flying too high, and not showing off.

Desai added that both Mao and Gandhi can, however, be seen to have adapted to given contexts and circumstances.

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