Purpose: As the global presence of Chinese firms grows, increasing numbers of Chinese managers are working abroad as expatriates. However, little attention has been paid to such Chinese expatriate managers and their leadership challenges in an inter-cultural context, especially across a large cultural distance. To fill the gap in the literature concerning the leadership challenges for expatriate managers in an inter-cultural context, the purpose of this paper is to elucidate the leadership styles of Chinese expatriate managers from the perspectives of three traditional Chinese philosophies (i.e. Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism) in the inter-cultural context of the Netherlands. Design/methodology/approach: The data for this qualitative study were collected via semi-structured, open-ended, narrative interviews with 30 Chinese expatriate managers in the Netherlands. Findings: The results clearly show that the leadership style of Chinese expatriate managers is deeply rooted in the three traditional Chinese philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism, even in an inter-cultural context. Specifically, the study reveals two salient aspects of how Chinese expatriate managers frame and interact with a foreign cultural context from the perspectives of traditional Chinese philosophies. First, the Chinese expatriate managers reported an initial cultural shock related to frictions between the foreign cultural context and Confucianism or Taoism, but less so in the case of Legalism. Second, the Chinese expatriate managers also reported that their interactions with the Dutch culture are best described as a balance between partial conflict and partial complementarity (thus, a duality). In this sense, the leadership style of Chinese expatriate managers is influenced jointly by the three traditional Chinese philosophies and certain elements of the foreign cultural context. This is consistent with the Chinese perspective of yin-yang balancing. Originality/value: This study is among the first to offer a more nuanced and highly contextualized understanding of leadership in the unique case of expatriate managers from an emerging market (e.g. China) in an advanced economy (e.g. the Netherlands). The authors call for more research to apply the unique perspective of yin-yang balancing in an inter-cultural context. The authors posit that this approach represents the most salient implication of this study. For practical implications, the authors argue that expatriate leaders should carefully manage the interplay between their deep-rooted home-country philosophies and their salient host-country culture. Reflecting on traditional philosophies in another culture can facilitate inter-cultural leadership training for Chinese expatriates.
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