Sofo introduces to the reader to the problem of the “mystery . . . with Chinese ways of thinking.” Sofo claims this mystery stems from his understanding that traditionally, China does not have research available with useful frameworks or tools in which to analyze thinking styles. Thinking styles is Sofo’s strong-suit, as over the course of many years (2002-2005) Sofo has developed Thinking Style Inventories (TSI) which he uses to examine leadership preferences. Sofo claims that in order to begin to understand Chinese thinking styles, he must first start from a Western perspective and so apply both his TSI as well as several other scholars’ (who shall be discussed) TSI. His belief that Chinese leaders should think conditionally (just as the party thinks) spurred him into doing this research, with the idea that perhaps they were not so conditional after all.

Sofo’s theory is based on his concept of “reality construction” which states that “thinking is not an ability, but instead a preference to use various abilities in particular ways.” So, rather than perceiving thought as a skill one can build and train, thinking acts as a personality trait which can be either conscious or unconscious, but in either case, creates a framework or structure in which our minds form mental strategies that build our worldview and concept of ourselves in relation to others around us. By postulating that thinking is so fundamental, Sofo believes he can extract leadership thinking styles from Chinese business and education leaders by using various Thinking Style Inventories, or surveys which then rate these styles according to a quantitative scale, although the article did not state examples of the questions nor the structure of the Inventories.

Sofo listed two research questions in his study. The first question dealt with examining the thinking style profiles of Chinese leaders. Part of Sofo’s foundation is that while he is using Western models to do his study, Eastern models will eventually emerge, and through that discovery, he will be better able to construct a profile based on the unique regional differences. Sofo references Hofstede’s framework and the unique but ancient idea that people are nationally motivated; Sofo claims this is an old way of thinking but the only one available, and so he designs himself to discover better, more regional ways to express the thinking styles of Chinese leaders. His second question deals more in specifics, with comparing and contrasting educational leaders versus non-educational leaders, to see if they differ or are the same across the Thinking Style Inventory he personally designed in 2005.

Sofo believes strongly that Thinking Styles are far more useful in determining “academic variables, employment variables, and self-rated abilities” than intelligence tests, and so he begins this study without utilizing tests of skill or logic, but merely by trying to understand motivations and preferences in leadership. Sofo believes that by utilizing Hofstede’s cultural framework, Sternberg’s theory of self-government, and his personal TSI, he will be given key insight into the two research questions he proposed to find answers.

Sofo’s review of literature in his article is vast, far more detailed than can be mentioned in this tiny paper (a good 50% more content than the rest of the paper combined). However, it is worthy to note that in review, he uses the triarchic theory of mental self-government built by Sternberg (1997), Hofstede’s framework for understanding national differences (2001), and the TSI built by himself (Sofo 2004). Sofo’s theory was derived from the work of Boud and Miller (1996), Knowles (1990), Mezirow (1981), and Schon (1987). Sofo also mentioned 31 other researchers who worked over the course of almost 60 years on the construction of “cognition-centred [sic] thinking styles.”

As the process concludes, Sofo concludes and predicts, based on his results, that non-educational leaders in China scored themselves as very independent and exploratory, while educational leaders scored themselves much higher than non-educational leaders in conditional thinking. To Sofo this proves that educational leaders are more comfortable with being told what to do, while non-educational leaders feel a drive to question their society more. While his conclusions are fascinating, his cultural assumptions do create a bias which ends up influencing his results in a negative fashion.


Sofo, F. (2005) Thinking Styles of modern Chinese leaders: Independence and exploration in an historically conditional China. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 45(3), 304-330.


Is he suggesting that traditional education's emphasis on rote learning for the sake of competitive test results creates an environment in the educational community that is biased towards an absence of independence?  Or that the non-educational community is forging more of a paradigm shift in modern China so they must think more independently?

Benjamin Seeberger
Benjamin Seeberger moderator

@sharonsee It's more that leaders outside of education are more likely to accept radical and new theories about management and leadership, while school administrators and teachers are more likely to follow the 'party line'. 

The bias comes with the method of evaluation - all the scholars are notably Western, which assumes a tendency towards personal freedom to act and think within an organization, rather than the Chinese model of 'keep your own beliefs to yourself and don't take your boss's authority by imposing your radical views on the cohort'.