The 9 Most Important Leadership Traits for Future Asian Leaders

Continuous learning accountability and agility are traits of futurefluent Asian business leaders

Here are nine traits, developed by ADP and its partners, necessary for Asian business leaders to guide their organizations into the future.

Tomorrow's Asian business leaders are facing a truly daunting set of challenges as we move into what many are calling the Asian Century. The mix of high-growth emerging markets, and mature global business centers, will force business leaders throughout the region with challenges from air and water quality, sustainability, climate, economic and political challenges, and the rapid deployment of new technologies simultaneously.

The constellation of leadership traits required to do this successfully has always been large and diverse, but these days, Asia's ideal business leader is a walking showcase of the most important business and interpersonal talents.

In the ADP-sponsored study Imagining Asia 2030: The Future-Fluent Asian Leader, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and the Singapore National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) collect wide survey data and identify the nine most important leadership traits for Asia's future top-level businesspeople. Collectively, these are the traits of a "future-fluent" leader, who can sail their business safely through the breakwaters of technological advancement and successfully ride the winds of change.

Future-fluency is about preparing to lead in dynamic new situations through a combination of bringing together the right mindset and capabilities to manage changing business or operating models, influenced by many factors. Successful future-fluent leaders often think, learn, feel and act differently as part of this mindset shift.

1. Continuous Learning

For the business leaders of the future, there is no such thing as learning the ropes — they can't be learned at that stage, at least not entirely. Learning needs to be understood as an ongoing, lifelong process, one that leaders must prioritize if they want to keep pace with the competition.

Their focus can't be limited to just one business vertical, or even to business itself. According to the leaders and experts surveyed, one crucial trait that determines business success is an insatiable intellectual curiosity "about any and all changes impacting the society." It's impossible to tell where the next storm will pop up on the horizon, so an effective, future-fluent leader must have the ability to keep a vigilant watch in all directions at once.

2. Personal Accountability

In a more transparent and widely connected business world, leaders need to take responsibility not just for their direct decisions within their organizations but also the indirect effects of those decisions on society. The modern job applicant has access to deep intelligence on potential employers, and they are more willing to assess their options based on organization culture than ever before.

Asia is developing more quickly than any other major market, and that sort of breakneck pace can't be sustained unless the entire region aims to work toward a system that works for everyone

3. Intellectual Honesty

Sometimes there are good arguments on both sides of a decision, and it takes wisdom to make the right choice. In many cases, it's up to top-level managers to possess the intellectual honesty needed to avoid convincing themselves that the option offering the greatest short-term gains is always the best one.

According to the report, Asia's future captains of industry will be challenged to take a more difficult but rewarding direction, one that will "take the human development and environmental sustainability agenda forward."

4. Embracing Contradictions

One of the report's panelists suggested that the world "is at the cusp of the 4th revolution, where the convergence of wireless connectivity, artificial intelligence, advanced automation, nanotechnology, 3-D manufacturing, biotechnology and big data may eliminate many jobs, [but] new ones may also be created."

The ability not only to deal with these sorts of contradictions but also to turn them into actual advantages will be crucial. Note that unemployment arising from technological advancement is almost inevitable, and leaders who don't realize that automation could lead to increased hiring in certain sectors may not be able to prepare their businesses for that new reality.

5. Agility

Wisdom is fantastic, but if its insights arrive too slowly to allow for their useful application, then wisdom has limited business value. To truly excel, a wise business leader must be agile. Whether the challenge is an unexpected new competitor with ample foreign funding, the ever-shifting network of global trade wars, or the constantly accelerating pace of technological change, everything about modern business rewards quick and dynamic actions.

If leaders need to produce a months-long study to guide their response to every new occurrence, they'll inevitably come to a procedural stand-still. Soon after, they may watch their more maneuverable competitors sail past and disappear over the horizon.

6. Ecosystem Thinking

No business exists in a vacuum — least of all those hoping to thrive over the coming years in the world of Asian business. Some businesses need materials, others need distribution, and some might need help with HR and analytics. Many need all this and more, which could leave them totally dependent on their ability to maintain good working partnerships with outside individuals and organizations.

In Imagining Asia 2030, one business leader said that due to "the state that [Asia is] in, it will be impossible to create an impact alone, so we will need to partner with stakeholders." Leaders who think across ecosystems and take every stakeholder's needs into account can expect to maintain better relationships, and they'll likely be able to anticipate the behavior of competitors far more accurately.

7. Anticipation

Also of the utmost importance is the ability to anticipate — to read the tea leaves of the news and personal experience, and foresee the most likely outcomes of ongoing processes. This has a lot to do with taking definitive action early by aiming for targets that are not yet visible so you can progress to the halfway point before it appears in full. Doing so requires an ability to identify impenetrable uncertainty and prepare for all probable outcomes so your organization is ready for anything.

Anticipation is one of the most interdisciplinary of all the most crucial leadership traits, but it heavily favors leaders who have a good grasp of big data, and an analytical approach toward predicting future developments.

8. Empathy

Empathy isn't just about understanding your employees and their needs, it's also about being able to intuit the feelings of your partners and end users. This point will prove especially critical as the worker and consumer populations of Asia begin putting more autobiographical information online.

"Asian leaders who can connect with the man on the street, and color decisions accordingly, will be successful in taking everybody along as they grow," says the report. Bear in mind that empathy doesn't have to lead to just deep personal insights, but can also provide value by identifying areas where industry can generate systematic, data-based insights into a group's perspectives.

9. Comfort With Discomfort

Even an executive with all of the traits listed above can't avoid the simple reality that modern business is difficult. This means that future-fluent leaders capable of carrying their businesses into success must be, in the words of one survey respondent, "comfortable living and excelling in a 'perfectly imperfect' world." There will never be a path so perfect in business that it avoids all speed bumps, so leaders must be able to maintain as much momentum as possible as they power straight through those obstacles.

The best top-level talent will bring a ruggedness that lets them take unavoidable adversity in stride and turn a simple drag coefficient into a source of extra motivation and an invaluable chance to learn.

Get the study

Download CCL's report "Imagining Asia 2030: Future-Fluent Asian Leader" to gain insights on the future happenings in Asia and how leaders can prepare themselves for the future.