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How Cultural Differences Affect Leadership

In a world that’s becoming increasingly global, it’s important for leaders to be able to communicate across cultural boundaries. It’s not enough to know languages – cultural knowledge is equally important. The concept of leadership isn’t the same in every culture, but it’s clear that the attitude of the leader is more important than formal structures, which can be very different.

Cross-Cultural Leaders

Leadership can be defined as a process in which one person influences a group to achieve a goal that would be either impossible or much more difficult to achieve without that influence.

Since this process is about influencing others, it’s also about cultural influence.

Cross-cultural leadership is becoming increasingly necessary as the world becomes more global. As companies expand their operations abroad, the need has arisen for culturally competent leaders who can easily work in many different countries increases.

Cross-cultural leadership development continues to be analyzed by researchers around the world. In recent years, the field has expanded dramatically with the influx of cross-cultural studies and research into global business practices.

If you want to be a leader in your company and industry, it’s imperative that you understand how cultural differences impact leadership.

Related: Can We Bridge Cultural Differences

This new need is exacerbated by the increasing adoption of flexible work arrangements and distributed workforces, which require different skills than those of leaders working primarily in U.S. companies.

Managing employees in different regions require a broader range of skills than managing employees in one location. The qualities of effective leadership at the local level may differ from those required for leadership at the global level, and it’s important to know the difference.

Effective cross-cultural leadership requires an understanding of two key differences between cultures: cultural values and cultural norms. These differences are best understood using Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, which provides insights into how people in different cultures approach leadership differently.

Leadership Styles in Different Cultures: Examples

Western Culture Leadership Style

The West is individualistic and focuses on personal achievement.

Western leaders believe that people should be rewarded for their efforts, and they emphasize competition as the best motivator. They encourage their employees to question orders and use their own judgment to solve problems. Western leaders are more task-oriented and focus on measurable results.

In Western cultures, there are many organizational leadership styles that can be effective in certain contexts if used correctly.

For example, American leaders include democratic leadership, autocratic leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership, and benevolent leadership.

Asian Culture Leadership Style

Eastern culture is a more collectivist culture and values group harmony and cooperation. Asian cultures believe that people should follow orders and work together as a team.

In Asian cultures, it’s not uncommon for a person to rise to leadership based on social status or family affiliation rather than demonstrated ability.

Leaders are expected to demonstrate their competence through action rather than being judged on it. In addition, leadership is often viewed through a prism of collectivism and individualism. In Asia, the group tends to be valued more highly than the individual.

African Culture Leadership Style

African leadership style, like other aspects of life in Africa, is heavily influenced by the local way of life.

Traditional demographics, including tribalism, in Africa, have a strong cultural influence on how people behave; in part, it shapes who you are and how you lead. It forms the way decisions are made and also affects how people communicate and interact with others. These traditions are not necessarily a bad thing; it’s part of what makes Africa such a diverse and vibrant continent.

Understanding the differences among traditions can help you better manage your teams, adopt the right communication style and achieve higher productivity.

Cultural Sensitivity

Leadership is a process where you communicate with your followers and convey to them what’s going on in a given situation.

Cultural differences affect this process because there are certain things that people from one culture may not easily understand in another.

For example, in Eastern cultures, mutual respect is paramount, while in western cultures, it can be more rewarding to be more direct.

In some cultures, direct eye contact is considered impolite, while in others it’s always made as a sign of sincerity. Some cultures believe that telling the truth isn’t necessarily good, while another culture believes that it’s good after all and wants everyone to tell the truth, even if it hurts.

Cultural Awareness

There are many different cultural backgrounds. Five cultural differences that impact cross-cultural teams and leadership positions are:

  • Hierarchy In some cultures there’s a strong understanding of hierarchy, and people in higher positions or with authority respect those below them. In other cultures, everyone is treated equally.
  • Collectivism vs. Individualism In some cultures, the family is very important, and great emphasis is placed on putting the family first. This may mean that work-life balance isn’t important because family comes first. People from more Western cultures value independence and don’t place as much importance on family.
  • Relationship or Task Orientation In some cultures, relationships come first and it’s very difficult to refuse a friend or colleague’s request because relationships are so important. In other cultures, the task always comes first and this helps leaders from these countries focus on getting things done quickly and efficiently.
  • Global vs. Local Focus In some countries, the leader has a strong global focus – globalization means that everything must be standardized to be consistent across all countries where the company operates, while others would rather keep their own identity, cultural value, and beliefs.
  • Priorities Some countries are more family-oriented, others more money-oriented. Some value saving face, while others value openness. Each cultural barrier can affect the way business is done in particular company culture.

Cultural Diversity and the Avoidance of Uncertainty

Different cultural styles and cultural dimensions can also affect an organization’s leadership style. What makes a good leader in one culture may not work in another.

Cultural differences can lead to confusion and conflict among colleagues.

Related: Does Personality Affect Leadership

Here are some ways to better cultural dimension and become more effective at work:

Treat All Colleagues as Equals

When you first meet someone from a different culture, don’t make assumptions about their cultural background, education, social status, beliefs, family, and other cross-cultural differences. This is especially true when you meet someone from another country or culture.

Work on Your Leadership Approach and Cultural Intelligence

Listen more than you talk. People from other cultures often seem quiet, even when they’ve something important to say. Let them have their say and encourage them to participate in group discussions.

Pay Attention to Differences in Body Language

Sometimes body language can indicate a cultural difference are uncomfortable with your interaction style or that they feel defensive or threatened. For example, some cultures tend to look down when speaking to another person, but this behavior could be misinterpreted as shyness by someone from another culture.

Avoid Making Negative Generalizations About Cultural Groups

Negative generalizations – such as “Africans are always late” or “Japanese are extremely disciplined” – can affect team morale and impair your ability to collaborate effectively across cultural boundaries.

Assume That You’ll Make Mistakes

Because even if you study a culture, you may miss something. If you make a mistake, learn from it and move on. Many people tend to dwell on their mistakes, and that can lead to problems. Unintentional mistakes happen to everyone and they don’t mean you’re stupid or inexperienced.

Does Leadership Determine Culture, or Does Culture Determine Leadership?

Trying to figure out if leadership determines culture or vice versa is like asking if the chicken or the egg came first. After traveling for over 16 years and working with over 100 nationalities, I’d say that both are the case and leadership and culture aren’t independent.

Rather, they form a feedback loop that constantly influences each other. Depending on the nature of the organizational culture, culture can even influence leadership.

What I know about culture is that it’s different for every single group in the world. Culture is what makes each group unique.

But there are some general rules when it comes to culture and leadership.

Culture affects leadership because it determines how people will react in certain situations

For example, if you want to lead people in a particular workplace culture, you need to know their vision and values and what’s important to them. This can make your job easier, especially if you understand how people deal with conflict or other problems in their day-to-day work.

If you don’t take the time to learn about the organization’s cultural context, it could be difficult – or even impossible – to lead.

Effective Leadership Behavior

The most successful cross-cultural leaders demonstrate a desire to understand differences and a willingness to be flexible. It’s not about being the “best” leader, it’s about being able to adapt and developing your cultural competence so you can succeed in your leadership role.

There are many stories of leaders from one country who spectacularly failed to achieve expected results because they didn’t consider the culture of the new country.

Study the history of the country. The more you know about a culture’s unique history, the better you can adapt your leadership style to that culture.

This includes understanding the biographies of the different role models in the culture and understanding the national culture.

When trying to communicate in different cultures, it’s important to remember that not everything can be taken literally.

When you’re working with a global team, it’s important to recognize and adapt to these cultural differences if you want to succeed as a leader.

Your team members and followers will only engage with your vision if they’re confident that you understand where they’re coming from.