Applying Data-Based Leadership Evaluation Models in ASEAN


The following write-up will appear as part of a larger whitepaper to be published by Singapore Management University. For more information, please contact me at

Without effective leaders in place, teams will fail to outperform the competition. When organizational strategies and tactics enter the international stage, cross cultural implications take the spotlight. Examples include international mergers and acquisitions (M&A); State Owned Enterprises (SOE) and Government Linked Corporations (GLC) looking to compete globally; assessment for expatriate and relocation assignments; cross-border contract negotiations; and development of regional managers with cross-country purview. Each of these opportunities brings forth debate around the benefits and drawbacks of a singular versus adaptable leadership assessment model.

Specifically, the cultural variance within Asia introduces especially complex challenges when deriving a data-based model for effective management. Implicit leadership theory posits that people define leadership through their understanding of those already in power. Research shows that a location’s unique cultural, macroeconomic, and political circumstances can influence which characteristics tend to be rewarded by way of talent promotion. That is not to say there are not certain non-negotiable needs for leaders to address.

To be clear, there are universal characteristics indicative of effective leadership. No matter where in the world leaders are assessed, subordinates demand integrity, competence, a record of good judgment, and the ability to craft and articulate a vision. However, when leadership emergence is studied with sound personality metrics, aspects such as appropriate ways of demonstrating one’s motivational drive, preferred communication style, and tolerated derailing behaviors tend to vary by location.

It comes as no surprise we find commonalities as well as key differences in leadership expectations across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Emotional stability, inclination to proactively communicate, and openness to new experiences tend to see the same levels of saliency in managerial ranks across the world.

However, when we examine levels of agency and conscientiousness (each relating to drive and achievement) as well as agreeableness (indicative of communication style), we find tremendous differences, not only around the globe but also across Asia and within ASEAN. Northeast Asian countries (mainland China, Japan, and South Korea) tend to reward leaders who seek consensus on decisions before moving forward, and drive others through a keen process orientation. Although business negotiation cycles can take longer as a result, once all stakeholders are on board a deal needs to close fast or there is risk of jeopardizing the agreement. Leaders from this part of Asia tend to be prudent and are more focused on potential threats than rewards. They also tend to be comfortable engaging in debate as well as confronting poor performance timely.

In ASEAN markets like Singapore and Malaysia (as well as in places such as India and Hong Kong), leaders who self-initiate and demonstrate flexibility on how to achieve a goal tend to ascend. Characterized by more individualistic leanings, the managerial ranks in these locations are constituted by opportunistic leaders who tend to be ambitious risk takers. Checking in frequently with team members is necessary to compensate for their tendency to change course according to an evolving business landscape; they may overlook the need to ensure others are continuously aligned, and are keeping up with shifting plans. Leaders from these parts of Asia are also inclined to maintain harmony when disagreements arise. Therefore, confrontational debate can feel awkward, and they may try to avoid circumstances that feature conflict, even if it’s constructive. Still, other countries in ASEAN (e.g. Thailand and Indonesia) tend to value organizational leaders who resemble northeast Asia when demonstrating motivational drive; but whose agreeable communication style is more similar to that of their southeast Asian neighbors. With such diverse and nuanced behavioral expectations for local managers, multinational corporations (MNCs) headquartered in Australia, US, or the EU have difficulty deploying a singular framework for leadership evaluation.

Organizations agree that communication effectiveness and motivational drive is a must-have for managers in every business unit location. However, the characteristics that support these perceptions vary. Based on our research into these factors and, given the overwhelming reference to ASEAN’s diversity from the CEOs in this study, we recommend local leadership benchmarks and other emergence data (e.g. personality data) be considered before finalizing an international talent management strategy. These data can alert those assembling or mapping corresponding evaluation models to where adverse impact could be expected. Qualitative, theoretical, and empirical data will help to understand where and how such models should be altered, so as to ensure fair and accurate assessment across ASEAN. In order to participate in ASEAN’s economic growth story, an organization needs to have a stakeholder model of leadership that can work in concert with this great diversity.