Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Leadership & Culture

Most experts are agreed that a key component of leadership is “strategic thinking,” which, of course, needs to be complemented by the ability to carry out or implement the strategy. A second frequently cited skill is “vision,” which is considered to be a critical leadership capacity. So, we have two components; the first related to cognitive capacity, and the second related to what we now know to be “emotional intelligence”. We also need to consider an international variable: does our culture affect our leadership style?

By culture I mean the characteristic behavior, which defines a group of people and is the result of their sharing the same set of values, beliefs and assumptions. Of course, we must remember that our shared values, beliefs and assumptions are influenced by the history, religion and geography of where we grew up. I am from Ireland, a relatively small island with a damp climate and a long history where politics and religion have been intertwined. In contrast, a Mexican is from a region in the new world, bordered on the north by the most affluent country in the world and to the south by the countries of Central America. Mexican culture is shaped by a range of climates and by a long history including pre-Hispanic civilizations, Spanish domination and the resulting mixture that is contemporary Mexico.

Obviously what we each value - Irish and Mexican - shapes our respective behavior. The forces of history, religion and geography clearly play a large role in determining what our values and beliefs are as a people. Our educational systems serve to reinforce our basic values and resulting culture. “Deep” culture does not change quickly, and people who have not had the opportunity to live outside their national culture are very often unaware of the nature of cultural differences. So how exactly does culture affect leadership?

Culture influences our notion of leadership and helps determine whether the style is participative or autocratic. In countries like Japan, Holland and Scandinavia, leadership style involves consensus. Some Latin and Anglo Saxon countries tend to favor a more charismatic style of leader. Other countries – Russia and Saudi Arabia are good examples – tend to favor a style based on centralized decision making. Hence, perhaps the first attribute of a “global leader” (in addition to commonly accepted notions of what makes a leader) is a keen understanding and deep respect for cultural differences.

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