Leadership Development – What’s Your Cultural Model?

As organisations seek to recruit and develop talent in emerging markets, specifically in positions of leadership and management, the question of a culturally acceptable base model for such development includes considering what such things as “leadership” represent or mean to the host culture.  Using Hofstede’s cultural dimensions can raise important questions about where the organisation and national culture fit or collide.

UK companies over the past few decades have tended towards a more consensual or inclusive form of leadership.  Indeed some organisations positively promote a non-hierarchical leadership model with expectations of leadership at all levels.  A fundamental question for most UK, US and Western European companies is whether this will work in the cultures they now find themselves operating in.

For example the Indian culture has one of the highest “Power Distance” indices as measured by Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions.  This means that there is a mutual expectation, i.e. leaders and followers, that there will be a significant separation between the ranks and that the leader’s job is to provide direction and make the decisions.  The idea of being asked for input, ideas and feedback on the leader’s thinking is likely to be met with an embarrassed silence or a face saving agreement to whatever has been suggested – even though it is likely never to be implemented.

Another dimension measures tolerance of ambiguity or uncertainty avoidance.  Low tolerance equates to certainty, resolution and directness in communication – something the Dutch, for example, pride themselves on.  It’s important to get to the point quickly and make sure everyone understands your point of view.  This approach wins approval and demonstrates strong leadership in the Dutch and many other Western cultures.  But this approach doesn’t travel well – many Eastern cultures would consider the approach rude, arrogant and disrespectful. In these cultures you speak in a way which moves around the topic with the expectation that the real meaning will be understood without directly naming it – and moving too quickly to the heart of the matter will equally cause discomfort or resistance (although paradoxically this may not be noticed because, of course, it would be rude to show direct disagreement).

So leadership development needs to consider the balance between the cultures and consider which of the potentially conflicting approaches will dominate.  This is a big question and one which many organisations have struggled with and occasionally been defeated by when they have not taken into account the cultural context and environment that leaders will need to work in.

Leaders need to learn how to have conversations with their people in ways that achieve the organisational objectives and respect the cultural influences.  This means learning to notice the signs and moving towards them without necessarily “going native”.  So, addressing the team…

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