‘Culture’ is both an internal phenomenon, and an external one.
While every organization has its own unique work environment and culture, leaders engaged in the spheres of politics, religion, sport, business, and the social services sector also operate within vastly different cultures where assumptions, expectations, attitudes, and values are dissimilar.
Culture becomes even more complex for organizations when they operate across geographical borders. There is no doubt that the online world has pushed many organizations into markets and countries they never intended to be in but now find themselves under pressure to respond. Donald DePalma calls this, “The Eighth Continent.” Many leaders have been caught unprepared and untrained for this.
There are many challenges facing organizations and leaders seeking to expand and survive in a rapidly changing and competitive global environment. On a macro level, we see severe fluctuations in the financial markets, the decline of major corporations, significant flux in the demand for imports and exports, growing uncertainty in the job market, and low investor confidence.
For many organizations, this has elevated the importance of forming effective strategic alliances—not only locally, but regionally and globally—to improve economies of scale and stronger market positioning.
What does this mean for leaders?
Leaders must be capable of operating effectively in a global environment and respectful of cultural diversity. Robert T. Moran, Philip R. Harris and Sarah V. Moran suggest that these leaders must be able to manage accelerating change and differences simultaneously; be open and flexible in approaching others; can cope with situations and people from different backgrounds; and be willing to reexamine and alter personal attitudes and perceptions.
It is often easier for us to focus on the importance of specific leadership traits when building partnerships, but sometimes this is not enough. For example, there are key differences in what defines leadership in Eastern cultures (collective, holistic, spirituality-based) and Western cultures (hierarchical, authority-based, and individualistic).
In French, leadership, “conduite,” means to guide ones own behavior, to guide others, or command action. In France, although the French are famous for protesting, authority holds deference and respect.
In German, leadership, “Fuhrung,” means guidance, and in organizations, it is construed to consist of uncertainty reduction. The leader guides action, and guides by the rules in such as way as to motivate.
In Chinese, “leadership” embraces the leader and the led. The leader is one who “walks in front” and guides the group through teaching “the way.” Here, the implication is that leadership can only be a relational activity.
In Arabic, the word “Sheikh” has different meanings according to the regional culture within the Middle East. Literally, “Sheikh” means a man over forty years. However, in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, “Sheikh” means a person from the Royal Family. In Egypt, “Sheikh” means a scholar of religion. In Lebanon, “Sheikh” means a religious leader even among Christians.
All of this to confirm that leadership is not the same in every culture, and there are considerable implications when we move outside the comfort of our own immediate cultural context. It’s even better when we see this as a positive thing, as argued by Erin Meyer –
“Challenging? Yes! But it’s also fascinating. The range of human cultures can be a source of endless surprise and discovering—a fount of remarkable experiences and continual learning that can never be exhausted.”
What’s the bottom-line?
While it is often easier for us to lead in ways that are familiar to us, developing mutual trust and respect starts with not assuming everyone thinks the same way we do. Some questions you might like to ask yourself include:
- Have I taken sufficient time to explore what cultural differences may exist that would be helpful for me to understand and respect?
- Are there certain behaviors and attitudes I am presenting that might be difficult for this person to understand, or that they find offensive?
- Would it be helpful to learn how meeting styles (settings, protocol and structure), negotiation and decision-making might be different?
- What steps can I take that will help me to become more culturally sensitive, informed, and effective as a global thinker or leader?
 More than 100,000 managers were surveyed across industry sectors to demonstrate similarities and differences. Kim S. Cameron and Robert E. Quinn, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 86-94.
 Donald A. DePalma, Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing (Sturbridge, MA: Globa Vista Press), 2004. xi.
 Robert T. Moran, Philip R. Harris and Sarah V. Moran. Managing Cultural Differences: Global Leadership Strategies for the 21st Century, 7th ed. (Amsterdam: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2007), 29.
 E. S. Wibbeke, Global Business Leadership (Amsterdam: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2009), 18, 41
 Erin Meyer, The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), 253