Leadership in Culture
“Leadership is essentially a cultural activity – it is suffused with values, beliefs, language, rituals and artefacts.”
Written by Raymond Lynn CEO of Fair Football Download the full whitepaper here
Open up any Cross-Cultural training manual, watch any Intercultural management video, or simply listen to a seasoned trainer, and one theme will consistently emerge; being an effective leader in one culture does not automatically make you an effective leader in all cultures. This notion is usually followed by the terrifically understated idea that leadership is “important”. Leadership is not important, leadership is a necessity that has existed in our societies since the dawn of man, and is intrinsically connected with status and power. However, all too often our industry places too much emphasis on highlighting and comparing leadership traits across cultures, at the expense of truly understanding how power is wielded by leaders and, crucially, how it is received by subordinates in those cultures.
Look across the plethora of definitions of the notion of culture and, again, a common theme emerges. That is to say, culture is a certain mental programming specific to particular groups, culture is how these groups perceive the world, and culture is simply how things are done in one context or another. Therefore, regarding leaders and leadership, culture cannot be dismissed. However, it must be understood to not define leadership characteristics per se, but to unravel different cultural understandings and ways of enacting leadership.
Culture in leadership
Often we will hear of differences in leadership styles, for example, there are cultures that prefer leaders who are assertive, visible and commanding; whereas others favour leaders who lead from behind and are practically invisible. Moreover, just as there are many traits that are universally appealing to the modern workforce, e.g. decisiveness, dynamism, ability to motivate, etc, there are also many traits that are accepted in some cultures but rejected by others. For example, we know that countries like the U.S., England, France and Germany have a tendency to glamourise leaders, whereas in the Netherlands, the glorification of leaders is seen as merely a horrid manifestation of social inequality, and is heavily frowned upon.
While acknowledging these differences is useful, it means little if we first do not seek to understand what leadership means in these countries. Indeed, this is a key issue in our understanding of cross-cultural management; we simply do not pay enough attention to the fact that the very meaning of leadership can greatly vary from country to country, and culture to culture. In hierarchical countries, for example, leadership is identified as being disconnected from those following, whereas in egalitarian countries, leadership is recognised as being less distinguishable and more approachable.
Power and culture
While trainers can be quick to draw on Geert Hofstede’s individualist/collectivist dimension, his notion of power distance, defined as the degree to which societies allow the distribution of unequal power, is a better reference point here. For example, it describes the influence power has on personal as well organisational functioning and how it is embraced by the subordinates as much as leaders. This again draws attention to not only how power is exercised but more importantly, how it is received.
An often taken for granted fact of modern human society is that all cultures (and organisations) create methods to elicit responsible and productive behaviour from members, however, there are multiple approaches to achieve this, which must be exercised differently depending on the culture. As a result, the level of power distance impacts the motives and expectations of the subordinates, thus the higher the power the more direction and guidance is expected. What this means is that there is acceptance towards autocratic leadership styles and likewise, the lower the power distance, the more freedom and independence individuals receive, which requires less autocratic and demanding leadership styles.
Leadership needs to understand what exists behind the action and importantly the knowledge of how others operate and how one’s own mental programming can operate alongside others. Successful leadership understands similarities and dissimilarities across cultures, irrespective of assumptions and stereotypes, as it provides some form of context and awareness. Thoughts and actions are impacted by culture, which influences behaviour, and as a result, question or strengthen an individual’s thoughts and beliefs.
The fate of many mergers and acquisitions have hinged on how leadership in culture is handled; likewise, the effectiveness of relationships, productivity, day-to-day operations, and ultimately, the bottom line of multinational organisations is impacted by the attention given to intercultural management. Ultimately, success and failure rests on a leader’s ability to understand not only when strong leadership is required, but what strong leadership actually means to different workforces.
Raymond is CEO of Fair Football, an anti-discrimination organisation based in England. He had previously conducted research at Warwick University into the influence and impact of culture within football, as well as society. This research was the first of its kind, and as a result, he has since been working alongside footballing governing bodies and corporations, where he designs and delivers bespoke cultural awareness workshops and training. He is dedicated to transforming equality and diversity in the workplace. You can contact Raymond by email: firstname.lastname@example.org