by Donald Fan
Senior Director, Office of Diversity
According to the 2009 survey of the Committee of 100, most Americans (73%) believe Asian Americans have made significant contributions to the American culture. By contrast, two Senate seats, six House of Representative seats, and only 1.5% of Fortune 500 corporate board seats are held by Asian Americans, while 33 out of 3,200 U.S. colleges and universities currently benefit from Asian Americans serving as president.
As an Asian American, I find these statistics both intriguing and perplexing. Why does it appear that so many Asian Americans are successful individually, yet that same level of accomplishment does not translate collectively into the fabric of societal leadership represented by corporate America, politics, and education?
While it may seem easier to blame societal and other external factors, perhaps we can dig deeper to see if cultural roots may play a role in this seeming contradiction. As Asian Americans, this can help us see if there are ways that we can contribute even more to the society through the leadership competencies that are valued in a western culture. To extend our impact in building a better tomorrow, we must equip ourselves with the appropriate skills and techniques, and know when and how to apply what we have learned.
Overcoming the Plateau Syndrome
From a very young age, Asian people are taught to respect and value wisdom, knowledge, and ability. We are told that a contented mind is a perpetual feast. Many Asian Americans equate success with becoming a subject-matter expert, a go-to-person, or technologically savvy. When we achieve the level of proficiency that we have set for ourselves, we can easily become enamored with our achieved level of contentment and fall prey to the plateau syndrome. This can lead us down a dangerous path of resistance to change, lost momentum, and choked aspirations.
Can we overcome the plateau syndrome? Absolutely, especially from a professional development perspective.
Nurture self-confidence, self-motivation, and willingness to take calculated risks. Think aggressively and act assertively when it comes to your own development. Consider how your self-development can positively influence those around you.
Identify the authentic purpose for your life—who you are, where you are from, and what you value and pursue your purpose with passion. Intentionally nurture a new mindset to lead with courage.
Confront challenges. Seek opportunities through different jobs, community outreach activities, and cross-functional project assignments. This will spur unique insights and breakthrough ideas and also help you appreciate and thrive in an unpredictable and complex environment.
Pursue the passion of diversity. Today, being a connoisseur of talent is not enough. Proactively tap into unique viewpoints and approaches, and foster a culture that allows them to emerge and thrive. And learn to bring together divergent points of view, develop consensus and maintain credibility. This openness to diversity of thought will yield dividends far beyond your own capacity.
Have self-awareness and be honest with your strength and vulnerability. Today, an organization’s success depends on a such a variety of talents and skills, that no one leader could possibly have all the answers. Leverage talents around you. Constantly solicit feedback, input, and constructive criticism to validate if you’re on the right track moving toward the true north.
Looking Back vs. Forward Thinking
With a cultural history that traces back thousands of years, Asian people appreciate rich historic experiences and lessons. This appreciation may lead many to search for conventional wisdom before starting a new journey. While history is a powerful teacher and can inspire thoughtful planning, overreliance on the past can hamper creative problem-solving and result in only incremental and marginal improvement. Looking back positions us defensively, whereas forward thinking positions us offensively. To become an effective leader and adopt a game-changing mindset, we need to become more forwarding thinking.
Be a visionary architect of your future and the future of your organization. In today’s world, filled with volatility and ambiguity, a clearly communicated purpose is essential for your organization’s success. Think like a CEO and maintain a balance between thoughtfulness and decisiveness. As an architect, you are responsible to keep the outcome in mind, not just to provide building blocks and to set the pace.
“Why does it appear that so many Asian Americans are successful individually, yet that same level of accomplishment does not translate collectively into their fabric of societal leadership represented by corporate America, politics, and education?”
Less is more. Matthew E. May, author of the book In Pursuit of Elegance, defines elegance as something that is simultaneously simple, but surprisingly powerful. Sometimes simplicity isn’t about what’s there, but what’s not. Drive for elegance by focusing your efforts and resources only on those compelling and impactful projects that are closely aligned with your purpose and strategy. Learn to do more subtraction than addition.
Be a constructive contributor. Keep “all” in mind at all times: people, community, and society. Seek to continuously improve and shape the world around you. Due to the long history of feudal ruling in many Asian countries, some people still believe social responsibility is part of government responsibility and obligation. The distorted concept of citizenship distances them from actively participating in fundamental societal changes.
Trade-off vs. Integrative Mindset
Traditionally, Asian people have been trained to focus on the practical, to find the most efficient path toward higher productivity. Carried to the extreme, this characteristic can lead to a trade-off mindset, where quick fixes and low-hanging fruit become preferable to seeking more complex, long-term solutions. In his book, The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin introduced integrative thinking: the ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution by forming a new idea that contains elements of both opposing ideas, but is superior to each.
Integrative thinkers embrace complexity, tolerate uncertainty, and manage tension in searching for creative solutions to problems. To become a more integrative thinker, consider the following:
The solutions that are presented at the moment do not reflect reality; they are probably imperfect in some important aspects. When faced with unpleasant choices, the integrative thinkers don’t choose right away, but think through the problem hard enough, expansively enough, and creatively enough, to formulate a creative solution.
Opposing solutions are the richer source of new insight into a problem. The integrative thinkers leverage conflict solutions and perceive opposing ideas as learning opportunities to be appreciated, welcomed, and understood.
It takes time and patience to ferret out a new and better solution from abstract hypothesis to concrete reality. The integrative thinkers take time to question conventional wisdom and define problems from a different perspective. That is why they can generate alternatives that others don’t even think about.
By overcoming the plateau syndrome and striving to be a more integrative and forward-thinking leader, Asian Americans can become more effective individually, and as a collective group, to lead and contribute to the society, and to build a better tomorrow for all.
Donald Fan serves as Senior Director in the Global Office of Culture, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Walmart Inc.