Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In Search of Asian-American Leadership

In the Sept 2010 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, Professor Thomas Sy of University of California at Riverside and his collaborators published an insightful research article: Leadership perceptions as a function of race–occupation fit: The case of Asian Americans.  It has generated considerable interests in press, see e.g., the UC Riverside Feb 16 news article ‘Model Minority’ Not Perceived as Model Leader and other coverage.  There have been few academic research papers on Asian-American leadership; the work reported is a valuable addition to the topic since “it is not reality but perception that counts”.  Moreover, aided with confirmation bias, perception and reality do feed and shape each other. 

There have been numerous ad-hoc statistics and anecdotal stories that support the existence of “bamboo ceiling” confronting many Asian-Americans in U.S. for decades. Through carefully designed controlled-experiments and rigorous analysis, Professor Sy and his collaborators provide strong scientific evidences that 1)leadership perception is higher for Caucasian Americans than for Asian Americans, and 2)technical competence perception is higher (lower) for Asian American engineers (salesperson, respectively).  Further, the work offers detailed analysis and understanding in how race and occupation together influence leadership perception.  

As a first generation Chinese-American immigrant who has gone through the ranks in my professional career from entry-level technical staff to a mid-level manager, as a skeptics of quota solution during Affirmative Action era, as a friend who has seen the rise and glass-ceiling effect of co-workers, as a mentor who has shared the joy and frustration of the advancements (or lack of) by some, as a parent who has been watching his children progress on their career, many times I have been wondering and pondering over this issue again and again. To name just a few of them: Can leadership be acquired?  How much of it is by nature or nurture? Why and how do race and gender play a role? What role does culture play?  How important is assimilation?  How important is the communications especially the verbal and linguistic skill?  How much and how fast can one overcome or get around the obstacles?

Let us digress a bit.  What is leadership anyway, a word that we come across multiple times every day.  Beyond dictionaries, a quick and good place to start for a broader introduction and discussion is the Wikipedia entry that begins with a pretty good definition: “leadership is a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a task.”  Note that in this definition, there is no mentioning of structure, title, organization, authority.  It emphasizes the fact that leadership a process of creation that can be done by individuals without being granted the role by others explicitly.  There is also no qualification for the task involved being political, or business, or religious.  In fact, there is no suggestion that the task itself is a short-fused or a life-long endeavor.   Neo-emergent leadership theory (from the Oxford school of leadership) had gone further and suggested that leadership is created through information that does not necessarily reflect the true actions or the quality of the leadership.  It may sound cynical but I am sure you can name quite a few examples supporting the statement from areas like merchandizing and politics.

In reality, formal title and role is often used as a surrogate for leadership especially in hierarchical organizations,  although being a higher level manager does not necessarily suggest meritorious leadership and vice versa.  With these surrogates, statistics collected by various organizations have shown consistently that there is still a widely spread and significant under-representation of Asian-Americans in senior leadership positions in U.S. across sectors from education to business.  Instead of sitting there and blaming it on external factors, or taking refuge in segregated Asian-American communities,  the most important and relevant question for all Asian-Americans is why and how can one close the gap effectively.

One place to start is to understand the basics.  Leadership theory and teachings are not new.  For one, there have been keen observations of leadership from the moment human beings engaged in social activities.  Some have traced back and pointed to writings of great men like Plato and Sun Tze 孫子 in Republic, and Art of War, respectively, 2500 years ago.  As the tools and understandings get further developed, researches in recent centuries had come up with numerous theories such as Trait theory, Behavioral and Style Theories, Situation and Contingency Theories, and so on.  In a part of Professor Sy’s investigation, he adopted the six key attributes of Implicit Leadership Theory.   They are: intelligence, dedication, tyranny, dynamism, masculinity, and sensitivity.  Note that intelligence and dedication are considered competent leader prototypes and tyranny, dynamism, masculinity are considered Agentic leader prototypes.   Professor Sy points out that Asian-Americans tend to be perceived high on the competent leadership but not on Agentic ones.  Clearly being competent alone is not sufficient to become a leader in competitive environment. 

Another place to look is other “model minorities”.   What immediately come to my mind is the Jewish Americans who have been often compared against Chinese-Americans for their achievements and competence.   Jewish-Americans account for approximately 2+% of the U.S. population but they represented almost 8% of the corporate boards.   In addition they have disproportional share of honors and recognitions in science, music and arts (e.g., according to Wikipedia, of American Nobel Prize winners, 37 percent have been Jewish Americans which is19 times the percentage of Jews in the population. Of the John Bates Clark Medal winners, 71 percent have been Jewish Americans which is 35 times the Jewish in population).  In comparison, Asian-Americans are about 5% of U.S. population but represented only about 1.5% of the corporate board.  One may note that Jewish-Americans were not exempted from systematic discriminations.  One may also point to the obvious time-lag that the major wave of immigrations of Jewish-Americans began at late 19th century which is 2-3 generations ahead of the major waves of Chinese-Americans immigration.  The question and the concern remains however if the rate of assimilation of Asian-Americans is reasonable and if the stereotyped Jewish-Americans’ behavior of being pushy, aggressive, outspoken are advantageous in the score of agentic leadership.  Don’t forget that the negative stereotypical traits of Asian-Americans include submissive, quiet, poor language skills, introvert, etc., and often seen as under-delivering on their potential influences with their perceived superior technical competence.

I don’t believe there is a silver bullet for the perception gap.  But it seems intuitively obvious that perception can be changed if however small attention and effort is made by enough people for sustained period.  Yes, it helps by making people more aware of the bias and be sensitive to it but that is not sufficient.  Better yet, one can simply act on improving one’s weak points individually that will no doubtedly bring satisfaction and rewards to him/herself, while contributing to the positive perception for the community.  It could be challenging but is easier than you think.  Just remember, practice makes perfect and mastery.  Just bear in mind that natural talent and smarts are over-rated in competitive environment; I don’t know of any successful leaders who did not work very hard for what they are passionate about.

In one of the interviews, Professor Sy skipped all the theory and technical terms, and boiled down his insights for us in this way: “The stereotype in the workforce is that Asian Americans are great workers, not great leaders.  In the Western world, the ideal leadership prototype is charismatic.  Asians are perceived as competent, intelligent and dedicated, but lack the perception of charisma needed to be viewed as strong leaders.”  The good news is charisma can be improved.  Now we understand more about the illusive leadership, let us work on it to be what you want and can be.

Talk to you soon!

1 comment:

Dan in Riverside said...

Interesting commentary. I appreciate your space.