How leadership differs across cultures

What makes leaders good in the workplace?

That depends on where in the world your workplace is. But one thing is clear: in most situations today, good leaders need to be able to manage across cultures. This means listening to what people are saying and understanding it; reading between the lines, rather than simply reacting. Leadership today requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, both in interpreting what others really mean and in deciding how best to be effective themselves within different cultures.

Leadership is all about perception. One person’s leader might be another’s loser. Qualities that are admired in countries with typically flat hierarchies, like Britain, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries include flexibility and collaboration. In these countries, a leader would make suggestions, guide and mentor, but not dictate.

In cultures with steep hierarchies, however – places like Arab nations and parts of Latin America – a leader is expected to show strength. Their authority is rarely challenged. Roles and boundaries are clearly defined. The egalitarian leadership approach preferred in Denmark and Sweden may be viewed in these hierarchical cultures as a weakness. In cultures where authority is not questioned, and where leaders are seen as dominant, workers would be puzzled if their boss asked them for feedback. They could assume the boss was somehow lacking information, or they could feel uncomfortable with the idea of having to criticize a superior.

Of course, the characteristics of successful leaders in different cultures are far less black and white than this. Attitude to risk, for example. In cultures like those of Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Hong Kong, effective leaders are often risk-takers who act independently. They are flexible and ambitious. In countries where the culture is more collaborative, like China and Japan, and parts of Latin America and Africa, leaders tend to be more risk-averse and rely on consensus.

Different cultures expect different emotional qualities from their leaders, too. In the USA, for example, leaders are admired if they are charismatic and passionate and it is acceptable to display emotion. In Japan and China, though, leaders are expected to keep a lid on their feelings. Being overenthusiastic, or readily expressing anger or sadness are signs that you are not in control.

Some cultures require a leader to be a diplomat. In the Middle East, parts of Asia and Latin America, where people have a strong sense of ‘face’, a leader is expected to think before criticizing, and to consider the honor and reputation of others in every transaction. The USA, Britain and the Netherlands are much more ‘straight talking’ cultures, where a leader can freely give colleagues feedback, even if it’s negative.

Other cultures see a leader as a ‘father figure’. These paternalistic cultures include many African countries, where the hierarchy in a company may mimic that of a tribe or village. In France, leaders often adopt a paternalistic, authoritarian style, making all decisions from the top down. Spanish leaders might be paternalistic, but rely more on intuition and their personal influence on people than adhering to a set of rules.

There are some qualities shared by effective leaders all over the world. Generally speaking, leaders are visionary. They lead by example. They command respect and they can make decisions. They show integrity and they motivate others. In theory, any leader can be effective in a different culture, but sometimes it’s challenging as adapting involves going against all one’s instincts.

In any case, in today’s multicultural environment, there probably is no cultural comfort zone for an effective leader. Leadership styles are changing. In India, for example, a new generation of entrepreneurs is adopting Western leadership styles, innovative, flexible, visionary and ambitious. And in today’s multicultural teams, every individual may have their own idea, based on their cultural background, of what makes an inspiring leader. Adaptability, more than anything, is what matters.

Sue BryantThis article originally appeared on the Country Navigator Blog and was written by Sue Bryant, an award-winning writer and editor specializing in global business culture and travel. We are publishing it as a guest blog post, with the kind permission of Country Navigator.

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