Multipliers: An Ancient Chinese Leadership Concept


A couple of years ago, a major US corporation invited me to lead a global leadership session for its Asia-Pacific leaders. The company was keenly interested in developing Multipliers, so all participants were asked to read the book. Many of them were inspired by the five types of Multipliers: talent magnet, challenger, debate-maker, liberator and investor. However, some people seemed to be reluctant to embrace them, citing that such “new Western leadership concepts” were hard to implement in hierarchical Asian organizations. Interestingly, Multipliers is neither a Western nor a modern concept. Ancient Chinese philosophers intuitively knew the effect of multiplier leadership traits without doing any survey or scientific research and preached them. For example, Lao-Tzu (604-531 BC), author of Tao Te Ching, emphasized the characteristics of a talent magnet and a liberator:

A leader must lower himself like water and give credit to his subordinates. If he wants to take credit, they will leave him soon. If a leader frequently interferes with subordinates, they will protest. A leader’s job is to create an atmosphere in which they want to do [work] for themselves with enthusiasm and can fulfill their potential.”

He wisely recognized the importance of an investor: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

His contemporary, Confucius (551–479 BC) demonstrated a challenger’s behavior. When one of his disciples said, “Even if I appreciate your Way, it demands powers that I do not possess,” The Master responded, “Those who run out of strength collapse during the course of the journey (the Way); but you are already drawing the line (meaning making up your mind to quit).” He scolded the disciple for lack of grit, not lack of competency. Confucius also encouraged leaders to become debate-makers:

  • Don’t say that things must be done only this way.
  • Listen to other perspectives with respect.
  • Don’t try to impose your ideas upon others.

Furthermore, he shunned the “know it all” behaviors of Diminishers and said, “It’s not a shame to ask someone who is younger and lower in status….Don’t think that you are the only one who can do the job.”

Unsurprisingly, The Analects by Confucius is widely read by leaders in China, Korea, Japan and Singapore, and there has been a growing interest in the leadership lessons of Asian sages. For example, Samsung invited a Lao-Tzu expert twice to its lecture series for Group Presidents. Samsung’s Chairman Kun-Hee Lee frequently quoted the teaching of another Chinese philosopher Han Fei-Tzu (280-233 BC) to his executives and three children who are now leading the Group: “A third-class leader uses his own ability, a second-class leader uses another’s power, and a first-class leader uses others’ wisdom.” One can easily conclude that a third-class leader is a Diminisher and a first-class leader is a Multiplier. The five disciplines of Multipliers may not have been practiced widely in Asia, however, they have been embedded in great Asian leaders’ common sense for over 2,000 years. Thus, it is about time to do more research on successful Asian business leaders and their traits in order to build a truly inspiring global leadership model with the best combination of East and West.

23 thoughts on “Multipliers: An Ancient Chinese Leadership Concept”