What leadership skills make a country’s economy vibrant? There’s no doubt that high emotional intelligence among executives boost a company’s success.

So when I read in Inc. that China has a “secret weapon” – strengths among business leaders in self-management and in interpersonal skills – I thought, those abilities are necessary, for sure. But in the world’s competitive economy, they are not sufficient.

Before I get into China’s missing ingredient among executives, let’s look at the impact of East Asian culture on business.

Self-Management: A Strength and a Weakness?

Since Confucian times Chinese culture has put high value on self-control and group harmony. Those values mark thinking in China’s government today. So it’s no surprise that executives in that country reflect strengths in these.

A Chinese consultant told me about her own early school days, when she and her classmates were taught to keep their arms behind their backs while listening to their lessons – an extreme form of self-control. So self-management gets engrained in Chinese children very early.

And studies of cultures worldwide show East Asian countries to be highest in “collectivist” thinking – that is, viewing your self-identity in terms of your family and group. This contrasts with individualist cultures like the U.S. and Australia, where “rugged individualism” prevails.

But it would be more interesting data if it had compared top 10 percent performers in each culture – U.S. and China – rather than being a “convenience” sample, where you just look at people whose test scores you happened to have. It may well be that the best leaders in the West are every bit as good on these abilities as are their peers in China, as data from HayGroup suggests.

The Other Secret Ingredient for Success

Now for the missing ingredient. You can have a large group of competent managers – with good self-management and interpersonal competencies – and still have economic stagnation. China is still riding the momentum of deploying its vast low-cost labor pool, a financial tide where it’s hard to fail.

But look at Japan, a country with the same cultural values – self-control and group identity – which is flailing.

Both cultures lack strength in the secret ingredient: innovative thinking.

Cultures that teach conformity – another word for too much self-control – can weaken their ability for creative thought. So both Japanese and Chinese companies are in the position of buying their way out of missed opportunities, by having to purchase successful startups began by entrepreneurs who took smart risks in pursuing disruptive breakthroughs.

The good news: every emotional intelligence competence –including the innovator’s drive to achieve – can be taught.

What do you think?

Weigh in on the discussion in the comments or on Twitter.

Additional Resources

Articles:

Teach the Key Ingredients for Leadership Success

The Active Ingredients for Innovation

Systems Blindness: The Illusion of Understanding

Podcasts:

When to Use the Right Leadership Style

The Focused Leader

How Managers Support or Stifle Creativity

Leadership Training Resources:

Leadership: A Master Class Training Guide

What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters

The HR and EI Collection

Daniel Goleman - China: Emotional Intelligence Isn't Enough