Leadership and the ability to lead is an important concept within our world of work. It has been studied and analyzed for centuries from Sun Tzu and Shakespeare to Bernard M Bass and Jack Welch. There is no doubt that it is a complex subject, but one which is well worth mastering. As part of our work on succession planning and talent development over the past decade I have worked with many individuals who have, through dedication to their craft become highly successful leaders. Without exception this has helped them to succeed in their careers and their organizations to prosper. At a corporate level, describing and evaluating leadership is the basis for predicting who is likely to bring success to the organization. A clear leadership model is the foundation for promotion management, building succession plans, and managing hi-po programs. The challenge is to define a clear concept of leadership and yet still leave room for individual differences, innovation and alternative approaches.
This challenge is amplified when we look at multi-cultural environments and global leadership. With continued globalization, most organizations that I work with are now operating in multi-cultural environments. The bulk of modern management and leadership research has been performed in North America and Western Europe. The result is that for most Western companies leadership assessment is assumed to be a global concept. These Western concepts of ‘global leadership’ are then often applied in non-Western cultures, often with very poor results.
In recent years there has been an increasing amount of research into the role of cross-cultural leadership. This has shown us that some aspects of global leadership are indeed applicable around the world. For example an inspirational leader is more esteemed than a transactional leader in any cultural setting. However the operationalization of global leadership differs widely from culture to culture. In Indonesia describing your past successes is an important part of motivating your team. In Japan this would be seen as bragging and be strictly frowned upon. It is evident that successful global leadership behaviors vary widely.
Individuals who are insensitive to such cultural differences, yet are required to lead teams outside their own cultural norms, are likely to find themselves misunderstood and ineffectual. Multi-national corporations who ignore cultural differences will find it impossible to build a successful global leadership pipeline. Several Western clients that I work with operate a single global leadership model, that imposes the same leadership behavior expectations on all leaders, regardless of location or culture. They are either struggling to build effective leadership teams in their non-Western regions, or finding that it is easier to ignore their leadership models outside of the West.
The good news is that these cultural differences are surprisingly stable and predictable. We first need to develop a way to analyze the differences. Here the academic research is invaluable. Creating generalizable models, codifying and classifying is what academics do so well. And in this realm the guru is Dutchman Prof. Geert Hofstede . He provides us with four characteristics with which to compare our cultures. These are individualism vs collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity vs femininity (for more see his book Cultures Consequences). The model can be used to compare and contrast different cultures and individuals operating within them. Whilst every nation, every sub-group, indeed every individual is unique it is possible to generalize quite broadly and still establish an effective model.
This model allows us to make predictions about how effective different leadership approaches will be in a particular culture, and to group similar cultures. For example the model tells us that in both Brazil and Russia inequality is accepted, even expected. So autocratic leadership styles are common, and participative approaches are viewed with considerable skepticism. China and India are restrained cultures where most people do not strive for personal gratification. Western leaders’ ideas of motivation, such as offering extended time off or personal rewards may be less effective than they would be in the US or Europe.
Global Leadership Behaviors
So we have a framework that we can use to understand cultural differences. The other part of the puzzle is understanding the leadership styles of individuals. If leaders are to be effective in a diverse environment and to make the most of a global people resource, they must understand their own leadership style and leadership behaviors, and they must demonstrate enough flexibility to adapt these to different cultural expectations. Over three decades of leadership assessment at hfi has shown us that many people are not able to flex their leadership style. These people may be successful leaders in their own cultures, but they will struggle in even marginally different cultures. I have worked with many Brits, successful at home, who cannot even function in other parts of Europe. You might say they are stay-at-home leaders. Other people have more cultural adaptability and, given the right support and training can work well in similar cultures. A South African working in Australia, or a Spaniard working in Brazil for example. A far rarer group are the truly global leaders, those individuals with the capability to operate effectively in any culture. I recently worked with an American who is not only living in China, but holds a senior leadership position in one of China’s largest corporations. Although education and experience can improve a person’s capability in specific situations, it is very unlikely that a stay-at-home leader can learn to become a global leader. Usefully the use of psychometric assessment allows us to accurately predict those people that do have the potential for global leadership.
However there is more to leadership than cultural adaptability. In order to effectively manage a global talent population, it is vital to have an effective description of what good looks like. Yet we are saying that leadership is not universal, that leadership varies across cultures. This means that it is important for any leadership descriptors to distinguish between the global requirements and the local differences. At hfi we define conceptual capability descriptions such as strategic planning, and then clarify those capabilities with observable leadership behaviors. Without the defined behaviors any capability is open to misinterpretation. But globally defined behaviors are too restrictive. Each capability must be interpreted for the local culture. The result is a global description of the concepts that is then operationalized through locally defined behaviors.
At first this approach might appear to complicate the picture. However a well-designed model of this sort can liberate the organization. When you have a single view of good leadership, you tend to only find good leaders in one culture. This encourages the use of expat leaders, who are expensive and, unless they happen to have rare global leadership capability, are likely to be significantly less effective than they would be at home. A global model that embraces local differences in behavior makes it possible to identify and develop local leadership talent which is far more effective in the long term than relying on expats. Rather than imposing a corporate, one-size-fits-all model of leadership on the entire organization, talent professionals who understand and embrace the differences in their people resource are able to accept that leaders from one region may look quite different to leaders from another. Embracing cultural differences increases the diversity within the leadership of the organization. And not only national or cultural diversity. When differences are described in terms of behavior rather than ethnicity of gender, they lead to diversity of thought, which is the essence of innovation. Understanding what is truly needed, and how to identify it in individuals, will expand and empower the talent team to build a truly diverse leadership team that will set the organization up for long term success.