Overview of Organizational Leadership in Malaysia

Scholars have not come to a consensus on a distinctive style that may be referred to as the Malaysian leadership style (Ahmad, 2001; Lo et al., 2010). Since the country is ethnically and culturally diverse, the leadership styles in the workplace are a reflection of these varied cultural and ethnic values of the Malaysian society (Ahmad, 2001; Kennedy & Mansor, 2000). Studies pertaining to leadership at the workplace in Malaysia have shown two distinct features: the role of culture in leadership and the variations of leadership styles based on different ethnicities.

In general, the Malaysian culture may be summed up as collectivist; hence, there is strong affinity for group affiliation and maintaining relationships (Hofstede, 1980). Early studies on leadership styles in Malaysia have described it as being traditionally top-down (Lim, 2001), hierarchical (Abdullah, 1994; Ansari, Ahmad, & Aafaqi, 2004; Kennedy, 2002) and emphasizing harmonious relationships (Abdullah, 1994; Kennedy, 2002). Leaders in the Malaysian workplace context are expected to be sensitive to the multiculturalism of its workforce (Selvarajah & Meyer, 2008); genuinely care for their employees’ well-being (Gharibvand et al., 2013); and be generous, modest, compassionate, self-effacing, patient (Kennedy, 2002, p. 20) and paternalistic (Ahmad, 2001; Hegardt Ullberg & Kundla, 2014; Jogulu, 2010). Paternalistic leadership style is defined as “behaving like a caring parent who understands his subordinates’ needs and concerns” while maintaining authority and respect (Ahmad, 2001, p. 83). Despite its paternalistic style, sensitive and tactful communication should be considered. For example, feedback is welcomed as long as it is delivered in ways that preserve self-respect and is sensitive to the feelings of others.

Malaysia is predominantly populated by three ethnic groups (Malays, Chinese and Indians). Studies comparing the major ethnic groups’ leadership behaviors indicated similarities as well as differences in leadership styles and preferences, due to distinct cultural and religious heritage of each group. The Malay and Indian managers are suggested to prefer a participative style of leadership while Chinese managers tend to have a delegating style (Saufi et al., 2002). In another study, Selvarajah and Meyer (2008) contended that Malaysian managers maintained a distinctive leadership behavior along their ethnic lines. Malay and Indian leaders placed higher emphasis on aspects of personal qualities (morality, religion, trust and communication), compared to Chinese leaders. This inclination may be linked to values, traditions and religious influence from the Islam and Hindu beliefs (Selvarajah & Meyer, 2008). In terms of managerial behavior, Chinese leaders felt more strongly on delegation, and management through persuasion and management education (Selvarajah & Meyer, 2008), therefore delineating their Confucian values and heritage (Taormina & Selvarajah, 2005).

Recent studies, however, found that leaders need to establish a more active employee participation in the workplace to ensure workers remain more interested, motivated and satisfied (Gharibvand et al., 2013; Abdull Rahman, 2012). Contemporary perspectives on leadership have also been studied in the Malaysian context. Scholars observed transactional leadership relates to better commitment to change compared to transformational leadership in public higher education settings (Lo, Ramayah, De Run, & Ling, 2009) while in multinational and local company settings, the results indicated that transformational leadership is preferred (Lo et al., 2010).

However, a leadership quality survey by Boatman et al. (2011) indicated that leaders and human resource (HR) professionals in Malaysia rated their leadership quality more negatively compared to others around the world. The authors attributed this to Malaysia’s developing status and the probability of leadership promotion based on tenure and technical skills as opposed to leadership readiness. The study also identified three critical skills Malaysian leaders should acquire in the future: (a) coaching and developing others, (b) driving and managing changes and (c) identifying and developing future talent. The study further revealed that although these three skills are deemed important, only about half of Malaysian leaders claimed to be proficient in these skills. This suggests the importance of a concentrated effort on leadership development in Malaysian organizations, focusing on critical skills that a leader should possess.

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