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Culture’s Impact on Leadership Success


What do people look for in leaders? Well according to research done by the leadership research gurus, Kouzes and Posner, there are four capabilities that consistently appear at the top of the list: Honesty, forward-looking, competent and inspiring. These are the only four capabilities that consistently receive more than 50% of votes worldwide. Similarly, Kouzes and Posner have identified five practices of exemplary practices. It seems that to be an inspiring leader employees look for a boss who can :

1. Model the Way

Clarifying your values by finding your voice and affirming shared values.

Set the example by aligning actions with shared values

2. Inspire a Shared Vision

Envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities

Enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.

3. Challenge the Process

Search for opportunities by seizing the initiative and by looking outward for innovative ways to improve.

Experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from experience.

4. Enable Others to Act

Foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships.

Strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing confidence.

5. Encourage the Heart

Recognize contributions by showing appreciation of individual excellence.

Celebrate the values and victories by creating a spirit of community. (Conversely also helps with discipline when connected to values)

Although these capabilities and practices of excellent leaders are generic worldwide, the reality is that cultures differ in their implicit theories of leadership; that is although the five practices above are respected around the world, it is how we implement the practices that can change dramatically from country to country.

For example inspirational leadership differs from culture to culture. In New Zealand where I am from, a democratic, inclusive style of leadership is highly respected; leaders are encouraged to ask for their team’s input and opinions. One reason for this is because in countries like New Zealand, the power-distance cultural dimension is very low, meaning the hierarchical gap between an employee and their boss is very narrow. The same cannot be said in China,where power-distance is very high. Employees don’t necessarily want a democratic leadership style, they expect leaders to issue instructions and to stay distant. A democratic leadership style may be considered weak and

uninspiring in cultures with high power-distance. Therefore, the impact of leadership is culturally significant.

The same can be said for many ways we behave and interact in the workplace; for example, the way we express emotions, the use of humour, the ability to negotiate and the concept of teamwork are all culturally contextual. In one culture happiness and enthusiasm maybe expressed by laughing out loud and patting a colleague on the back, whereas in many East Asian countries for example, there are strict guidelines as to how emotions should be expressed, but this is not to say that people in these countries are not enthusiastic about their work!

It is so important that leaders working in a multi-cultural setting do not take a ‘cookie cutter’ approach to leadership. Most leadership literature comes from a very Western way of seeing the world and it would be a mistake to think that a leadership style that is successful in say, the US for example, can be directly transported into many other parts of the world. A successful leadership approach in Seattle may be a complete flop in Shanghai!

Therefore, cultural intelligence training is so important; it provides leaders with a different perspective on worldwide differences in human interaction and business practices. CQ can be the difference between those people who succeed and those who fail when leading across cultures.

Steve Morris is Director of Morris Consulting Group (www.mcgnz.com) and Cross Cultural TransitioNZ (www.cctnz.co.nz) and is an expert in the field of human potential. He believes that the key to human performance is creating positive environments where people are engaged and motivated.

He is also a licensed Cross-Cultural Consultant through the Inter Change Institute, Boston USA

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