These questions, frequently discussed in MBA classes, dish up interesting food for
thought when it comes to multicultural leadership. Does a person’s cultural background influence their definitions of great leadership? In other
words, are the traits and behaviors that people expect from a good leader universal or culture-specific? What does the answer teach you about
leading in a global environment?
It is easy to reach agreement over some exemplary leaders. With his vision, courage,
and integrity, Nelson Mandela, for instance, makes almost everyone’s list. By the same token, Kim Il Jong receives no mention, ever. Even the
North Koreans he ‘leads’ seem to realize that Kim’s leadership is substantially lacking.
These examples indicate that everyone, regardless of cultural, social, or political
background, values certain important qualities. In politics, business and elsewhere, we all want those leading us to combine visionary thinking with
a dose of realism, to be trustworthy and dependable, proactive and dynamic, optimistic and energizing.
Beyond such traits, however, what makes someone a great leader seems a bit more
controversial when looking at different parts of the world.
Some Leadership Behaviors Are Viewed Differently across Cultures
Mahatma Gandhi probably enjoys greater respect in certain Western countries than he
does in Asia, where many consider his style overly soft and conciliatory. These critics apparently appreciate a ‘tougher’ leadership
style, one that is indeed common all around Asia. Another aspect often surfaces when discussing Ronald Reagan, the former movie actor who later
served two terms as President of the United States. Across most of the political spectrum in the U.S., people cite decisiveness and ‘street
smarts’ as some of his strong leadership qualities. In contrast, many continental Europeans view Reagan as rather narrow- and simple-minded.
[Don't mistake this for a matter of political standpoints. US-Americans prefer smart leaders, as indicated by the person’s actions, while
Europeans tend to place greater emphasis on intellectual capability, as demonstrated through academic records, publications, speeches, etc.]
Similar differences in perceptions are found in the business world. Richard Branson,
the British self-made man and serial entrepreneur, is widely admired in the U.K. and the U.S. for his unconventional business style and initiative.
This very style meets with reservations in Southern Europe or Latin America, however, where a leader’s behavior is expected to reflect class
status, formal upbringing, and proper education.
At the core of such differences are cultural orientations shaping people’s
expectations of what constitutes great leadership. In the U.S., Canada, or Sweden, for instance, family background and upbringing matter relatively
little to someone’s perceived leadership potential. In these achievement-oriented cultures, the person’s past accomplishments and
demonstrated capabilities play a much more significant role. In contrast, highly ascription-oriented cultures such as France, Mexico, or India
place great emphasis on aspects such as family status, education, and titles.
Another cultural factor is something called power distance, defined as the degree
to which inequality is accepted within a group or society. In much of Asia, the Arab World, Latin America, and other places where there tends to
be a large power distance, most leaders are autocratic and somewhat aloof. Leveling with subordinates is often viewed negatively in these cultures.
Members of cultures at the other end of the spectrum, such as Australians, Norwegians, or the Dutch, are likely put off by such behaviors and might
even ridicule them.
Leading in a Global Environment
In light of diverse cultural orientations and the resulting differences in views of
the ‘right’ leadership behavior, there can be little doubt that the most important ingredient to global leadership success is adaptability.
Few business leaders have demonstrated this more clearly than the current dual CEO
of car makers Nissan and Renault: born in Brazil and raised in Lebanon, Carlos Ghosn spent most of his career working in the United States, Japan,
and France. In each of these countries, he acquired a strong reputation for his willingness to learn about local customs and adapt to business
practices without giving up his trademark characteristic of being a hard-charging and demanding leader. Working across cultures, he projects himself
differently depending on cultural context, acting more autocratically in France and Japan than in the States, for example. As a result, he built
a successful alliance between highly diverse partners, a feat few have ever accomplished.
None of this is magic. For the most part, all it took for Ghosn to achieve what he
did was an unusual willingness to learn and adapt. If your own role requires you to lead across cultures, maybe Carlos Ghosn could be a role model?