In his first public response to Beijing official Wang Guangya's criticism of the city's civil servants, the chief executive said Hongkongers had to 'learn to act as their own boss'.
Donald Tsang Yam-kuen also defended his governing team, saying officials had been making long-term plans for Hong Kong's future - a process that required a consensus in society, which took time to deliver.
He declined to respond when asked if he thought the criticism by Beijing's top man on Hong Kong affairs had been directed at him or his governing team.
'Under 'one country, two systems', Hong Kong people have to learn to act as their own boss ... it is, in fact, what is happening,' Tsang said.
'I have been working with my team in making short, medium and long-term plans in accordance with the situation in Hong Kong.'
Wang, director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, was quoted as saying that colonial rule had trained civil servants to 'listen to the boss', but that they 'don't know how to be a boss' after the handover.
Ironically, Tsang made his comments while speaking at a conference discussing leadership qualities, organised by the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, a think tank.
Tsang said that in his six years as chief executive, the government had introduced major infrastructure projects, medical reforms, a minimum wage, policies to integrate the city's economy with the mainland, and a plan to develop six pillar industries that would bring long-term benefits to the city.
He said public participation was important in the process of policy formulation, and therefore it might take longer to foster consensus in Hong Kong's society.
'In order to balance the interests of various sectors and canvass their support, it's inevitable that it may need more time to reach a consensus,' Tsang said.
But Michael Tien Puk-sun, vice-chairman of former civil servant Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee's New People's Party, said there was a consensus that the city's development had slowed in recent years.
He also questioned the progress made in the development of the six new pillar industries.
Tsang said he had 'a dedicated group of principal officials' in his governing team and praised the civil service as 'one of the finest in the world'.
The government would continue to enhance training to nurture talented young civil servants, he said.
So Ping-chi, chairman of the Senior Government Officers Association, said Tsang's response missed Wang's point. 'General civil servants understand that Wang was not criticising them, but the leadership.'
At the conference, Tsang spoke of the personal qualities required to be a good leader. He said they included high moral standards, a passion for serving people and the ability to communicate and work with a team.
He picked out humility and self-reflection as vital qualities for a leader in Hong Kong. 'You must try to put your ego to one side and acknowledge and admit that other people may have a better proposal,' he said.
Tsang said a leader also had to be sensitive to the changing needs and priorities of the community, and put forward new ideas to address them.
At a separate event, health minister Dr York Chow Yat-ngok responded to Wang's remark by saying that principal officials would humbly listen to criticism.