The Lao Leadership Style

Lao BanLao Leadership Style” is my own term that I have called the style of leadership discussed here. I hope to study and learn more so that I can expand on this over the coming year.

“Lao” translates into “Senior” as a title in Chinese Mandarin. “Mr Lee”, when given the respect of an elder, would be addressed as “Lao Lee”. Lao, or in this case Elder, can relate to the Father figure, which can sometimes be the Elder Brother. Lǎo bǎn (written as shown in the picture) is the name given to the Boss in China. In this instance, the words Lǎo bǎn is a relatively recent Cantonese addition to the language but its the concept of Elder, or Senior, or Lao Leadership style that I wish to discuss here.

Side note: Please accept my apologies in this post as, simply for brevity, I have used the male Him and He but don’t mean to be sexist so please translate to Her and She where appropriate.

I have always had a great interest in Chinese history. I am lucky enough to have a lovely Chinese wife, and we had the pleasure of spending a number of weeks in China late last year where I fell in love with both the country and its people.

One area that I found interesting is the leadership style in many large Government organisations in China and how nothing more than a simple difference in thought leads to a very different style of leadership that is worthy of consideration. I’m referring to Lao as a leadership style in China. Although communism and the revolution have given rise to a worker\boss relationship, what I am referring to comes from much further back. It is from the essence of the Chinese Confucius and family values.

Meeting my wife’s brothers in Qinhuangdao and then again in Beijing, was a very enjoyable few days and gave me a family insight to this thought of the Lao. Younger brother and I hit it off immediately and his easy going casual style had laughter flowing as smoothly and abundantly as the beer even though we don’t speak the same language. Elder brother though showed great responsibility in organising transport, accommodation, and taking care of all the details of our visit. I felt a bond with both, but a respect for the elder brother for the responsibility, dignity, and presence that he showed; a hallmark of many years of being Lao to his family and his shouldering of that responsibility. In the case of my wife’s brothers, both were younger than me but elder brother was definitely my “Elder” and I gave respect to that.

There have been numerous books and articles explaining the respect offered to your elders in China and other places. What the books and articles often fail to get across however is not so much the respect that others show, but the immense mantle of responsibility that the elder takes on. It may help us Westerners to understand if we consider that it is not simply the fact of being older that holds the respect of the young, but the respect of the responsibility shown by the elders for those who are under their care. In other words, it’s not so much telling the young to “show respect to your elders”, but that the young respect the responsibility and care that they are being shown.

The responsibility of Father or Elder Brother is not taken lightly and means a great deal more than simply being in command. As an elder brother, or Lao, you would be responsible for the actions and the success or otherwise of your siblings.

In Western countries, when you are employed by a company, you are expected to deliver for that company and if you fail to deliver to expectations, then you are looking for another job. You must show your boss that you are worthy of the position that he has placed you in and that you can perform well in that position to enhance the team, the project, and the company. In China however your Lǎo bǎn takes you in as family, a younger brother. It is his responsibility to ensure that you are able to deliver to the company. If you prove to be unable to perform to expectations, then the Lǎo bǎn will mentor you and do everything in his power to ensure that you do succeed. If, despite his efforts, you prove simply not up to the task, instead of firing you, you may be reassigned to tasks more in fitting with your abilities and where your contribution can be better utilised. In this manner, it is the Lǎo bǎn who owes you the ability to succeed, not the other way around. By taking you on, he is now responsible for you, just as he is responsible to his younger brother.

Compare that to Western companies and you can see the difference that the way of the Lao thinking can have. In a Western company, it is the employee who owes the company a debt for the wages he\she is paid. All too often the employee is moved on without the time and responsibility that should be shown to mentor, train, and discipline the employee. In a strange way, the roles are somehow reversed in the Lao Leadership Style.

It is fair to say that the Lao style will not suit everyone and, like every leadership style, can also be open to abuse. It may only be where this Lao responsibility is ingrained into the culture of the people, will it work successfully. It will take a Phd study to determine the value of the style in today’s western culture where disrespect of power is as widespread as disrespect for responsibility in some circles. I don’t have any answers, but I’m certain that this is worthy of at least the question.

I have seen some of this leadership style in a few places but usually works more due to the actions of a single person and the mutually respectful culture that has been instilled in the company over many years, than to any specific implementation of a so called “leadership style”.

Every style has its good and bad implementations, but I can’t help feeling that the Lao Leadership Style might have need of further thought and understanding.