City Beat

Too tough or amicable team player? All eyes on Lam and Tsang as Hong Kong civil servants consider their future boss

Heavyweights in chief executive race are both technocrats with perceived leadership styles that are polar opposites

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 March, 2017, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 1:50am

Here is a common dilemma that all employees face: do you prefer a hands-off type of boss, or one who is demanding and not so nice, but capable?

At the same time, to be a real leader, team-building is no less challenging than taking up the top job itself, as that may require a personality change.

With the city’s chief executive race entering its final stretch, the very different leadership styles of front runner Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her arch-rival, John Tsang Chun-wah, have become the talk of the town.

There is a third candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, but the focus is on the two heavyweights, as Hong Kong’s more than 160,000 civil servants consider who their future boss will be with mixed feelings.

What’s interesting this time is that, unlike outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who was an “outsider” when he joined the government after being elected five years ago, both Lam and Tsang are no strangers to their former colleagues.

Both are technocrats who spent decades in public service, but inside and outside the government, people know too well they are two completely opposite characters. Lam is very strict and demanding, while Tsang is more laid-back.

Over the past week, a highly encouraging development for Lam was the news that the city’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, and his two sons had been persuaded to vote for her. Li’s political influence, coupled with pro-establishment support, has put Lam in what is widely seen as an almost unassailable position.

But that has come along with a new problem for Lam. The week saw her being questioned or attacked for her tough relations with some of her former subordinates in government. She has denied such concerns, saying: “Many senior officials would like to see me be the next chief executive.”

Lam dismissed speculation that several senior officials would resign if she wins the city’s top job – this was during an interview with, an online platform operated by former Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing.

Lam also strongly denied allegations made anonymously against her by people claiming to be government insiders as “groundless” fabrications.

However, she did acknowledge that civil servants today are under tremendous pressure amid the city’s politically complex climate.

Understandably, hiding one’s shortcomings is a common strategy in any election campaign. That explains why Tsang – who is considered by critics to be less capable than Lam – and his team have been trying quite successfully to build an image of him as an understanding and supportive boss who can team up with capable people.

Lam is well known for her very direct “Iron Lady” character, but that could translate into a negative labelling of her style as being too much.

Turning this perception around to convince the public that she can also be a caring boss while setting high standards is equally challenging.

Lam earlier admitted that she might have “walked too fast”, making it “hard to catch up” for her colleagues. She may be upset by the criticism about her “too demanding” manner, and she may also blame all that on deliberate attacks by her opponents, but that’s what an election is all about.

The beauty of a campaign is to make one more humble.

To be fair to Lam, there are people who appreciate her and some civil servants have also said in private that she instils more fear than dislike. Whatever that really means, Lam should find some wisdom in the Chinese saying: “Correct mistakes if one has made any, but guard against them if one has not.”

Surely, no leader can please everyone. Yet being the leader of the city entails a totally different role than that of a No 2 or No 3 official, or a minister.