Dr. Gareth Craze, Founder, and Head Executive Coach at Energeia Coaching, conducted formal interviews with 20 executives and leaders in Vietnam and abroad to understand leadership development now and in the future in Vietnam.

This raised a couple of open empirical questions for me: is LD among companies operating in Vietnam emphasized to the degree it is in other countries? And, if it is,

is it being done so in a way that is consistent with globally- established standards of best practice?

Darwin Smith, the former CEO of Kimberly-Clark (owners of the Kleenex and Huggies brands, among others), once said of his own leadership, “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”

This pithy quote captures the substance of Leadership Development (LD): good leaders never stop learning or upskilling themselves. Certainly, in modern leadership, with the ever-shifting demands of this era of great volatility and complexity, there is no shortage of new things for leaders to learn or skills for them to acquire.

Successful companies the world over have recognized this fact, and have made LD an integral component of their overall strategy. And the evidence from the scholarly leadership literature has thoroughly justified such an approach; with companies that have formal plans for developing their leaders reaping a host of benefits, including substantial increases in overall productivity and profitability, and reductions in turnover and attrition.

However, most of the research on LD has been conducted in Western business settings. Comparatively, less attention has been paid to the wider Asian business sphere, and virtually none to an emerging Asian economy such as Vietnam.

To find out, I conducted formal interviews with 20 executives and senior leaders with professional experience both in Vietnam and abroad. I used the resulting data to paint an overall picture of executives’ perceptions of the state of LD in Vietnam, and where it might be headed in the future.

MNCs vs Vietnamese Companies

Perhaps the most consistent theme that emerged from this research was that there was a significant difference in the understanding and implementation of LD between Vietnamese companies and multinational corporations with a Vietnamese presence. MNCs typically brought their existing frameworks for LD with them, which had been previously rolled out in other markets and then instituted locally upon opening an office in Vietnam.

Conversely, Vietnamese-owned and operated companies were thought much less likely to have formal LD plans or initiatives in place for their leaders. To the degree they do exist, they were thought to be much less formalized, uninformed by standards of best practice, and largely untethered to the company’s strategic aims or business objectives. One executive described them as “two lines of personal KPIs, at best”, with another lamenting them as “non-existent.” There was near-uniform agreement that Vietnamese companies did not see LD as a high-priority item for which to devote company resources and that it is viewed as an unjustifiable expense, rather than a calculated investment.

Change Management

“The Vietnamese change management model is: ‘take everything as it comes’” said one of our research participants. Although there was wide recognition that Vietnamese companies had adapted (often remarkably) well when confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, this was in large part due to a kind of “Scotch tape improvisation”, as one executive put it, rather than through properly-pur- posed change management planning. That is, “figuring things out as they went along”, as another executive put it, and not applying any formal principles of change management.

According to our participants, the pandemic revealed many Vietnamese organizations and their leaders to be resourceful and adaptable, and therefore possessing a strong general foundation for change management. But this was also seen as disconnected from any real understanding of the nature of the change and the necessity of having well-trained leaders to proactively navigate it.

Soft Skills

The results of our research painted a rather pessimistic picture of the practice of soft skills and the understanding of attributes like Emotional Intelligence in the Vietnamese LD context. Companies were roundly thought to simply not grasp the connection between strong interpersonal skills and an appreciable return on investment and thus made no efforts to enhance this skill set among their leaders.

Interestingly, many of the same participants who decried this state of affairs also argued that Vietnamese society at large – with its strong emphases on empathy, peer bonding, and communalism – could actually confer a distinctive advantage on Vietnamese business in this area. However, in the absence of formal structures and training, such potential advantages were thought highly unlikely to be leveraged in the service of business objectives.


Modern LD has identified the ability to intrinsically motivate employees as a real test of an individual’s true leadership capabilities, and employees that are intrinsically motivated are much more likely to be committed to their company and engaged in their job.

As our interview participants roundly observed, Vietnamese leaders motivate almost exclusively through extrinsic means: incentivizing through the allure of rewards such as greater pay or potential promotions and dis-incentivizing through the threat of disciplinary measures such as pay reductions or terminations.

As one of our interviewees noted, “[Vietnamese] leaders motivate in a completely transactional way. They aren’t interested in bringing out the best in their employees over the long term. They just want to keep them obedient and in line in the here and now.”

However, other factors may also be at-play, as another interviewee noted: “Most Vietnamese managers are only really concerned with a paycheck, because the money here is so low, and there are no guarantees you’ll make more elsewhere if you jump ship.” Hence, there may also be a bottom-up lack of incentive for leaders to try to intrinsically motivate their top people.

Conflict and Feedback

Consistent with other Asian cultures, Vietnamese society is famously con- flict-averse; a quality also reflected throughout its business landscape. Even when the conflict itself is motivated by the desire to improve or innovate within the company, Vietnamese are less likely than their counterparts elsewhere in the world to speak up and engage in open disagreement – particularly with their boss.

The importance placed on saving face and the hierarchical nature of Vietnamese organizational structures collectively amplified this tendency to shy away from conflict, stay quiet, and not raise any issues. It was felt that Vietnamese leaders seldom received conflict management training, resolved conflicts by unilateral fiat or decree, and engaged in reputation management, rather than opening up to feedback from direct reports who might question their decisions or suggest alternative courses of action.

Team Building

A very common theme to emerge in this research was that Vietnamese team-building initiatives typically amounted to “fun” getaways, parties, or activities. Although these were a source of much excitement for employees, they were often disconnected from anything of organizational substance, and managers themselves were often not involved in their planning.

One participant likened this to “bread and circuses”: leaders were happy to outlay on a day or two of games and bonding activities to keep employees placated. Another participant bemoaned the perceived wastefulness of such activities and said that “these are resources that could be better used on upskilling managers to create coherence and alignment within their teams.”

And yet, as another executive observed, “These might seem like a waste of time and money to us, but the employees love these days out, and it’s a small price to pay for retaining key employees and making sure they’re happy to keep working [for the company.]”

Executive Coaching

While leaders throughout many business cultures benefit from working with an executive coach such as myself, such developmental relationships remain comparatively unrealized in Vietnam. Local coaches were thought to lack suitable credentialing and professional credibility, and the expense of hiring properly-trained coaches to assist leaders in their growth was seen as an expense either beyond the means or beyond the grasp of most Vietnamese organizations.

However, a number of participants felt that executive coaching will likely become a significant area of focus when the next generation of business leaders begin to emerge and take the reins of Vietnamese companies.

Optimism for a New Generation

Although reading this article might give you cause for sober realism, if not outright pessimism, there are also some grounds for measured optimism.

Exposing Vietnamese business students to ideas about the best LD practices was considered crucial. But there was also wide recognition that this must be achieved at universities within Vietnam’s borders – not through Vietnamese students being educated abroad, as was thought to be the current status quo.

On top of that, our participants felt that simply imposing Western ideas about LD on the Vietnam market would not be sustainable. Many felt that LD could be grown in a quintet- essentially Vietnamese way, based on Vietnam’s own customs and cultural nuances.

While the vagaries and difficulties of present-day Vietnamese business will almost certainly pose a long and challenging road ahead, there was near-unanimous agreement among the executives we surveyed that there is good reason to believe that LD in Vietnam could, one day, become, not only world-class but a model for other countries in the region to follow.

Watch this space.


Gareth Craze, PhD, BCC is an organizational psychologist and executive coach who has worked extensively in leadership development and human resource development. He is the founder and head coach at Energeia Coaching and teaches leadership and organizational behavior at the International School of Business in Ho Chi Minh City and at Western Sydney University.

Energeia is an HCMC-based coaching practice specializing in high performance throughout work and life.


081 662 5529 gareth.craze@energeiacoaching.com

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