How Cultural Factors Affect Leadership

No topic, probably, has been quite as exhaustively examined, studied, dissected, and discussed as leadership. But much of the focus has been on how American businesses define leadership. What works in U.S. based businesses may or may not work in business environments in other parts of the world. Robert J. House, director of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Program at the Wharton School, has spent the past ten years studying how different cultures throughout the world define leadership. He and his colleagues have found that definitions and perceptions of leadership vary considerably from culture to culture. In the global business world, organizations and executives face a growing need to understand the subtleties and nuances of leadership as it is exercised in different cultures.

In 1993 House launched The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Program (GLOBE) to test leadership hypotheses in various cultures. Over the past six years GLOBE has evolved into a multi-phase, multi-method research project in which some 170 investigators from over 60 cultures representing all major regions of the world collaborate to examine the interrelationships among societal culture, organizational culture and practices and organizational leadership. GLOBE has focused on universals and culture-based differences in perceived effectiveness of leadership attributes by asking middle managers whether certain leader characteristics and behaviors would help or hinder a person in becoming an outstanding leader.

GLOBE recently completed the second of four phases envisioned by House and his colleagues. Phase II found that there are universally endorsed leader attributes. In addition, the study also found that there are attributes that are universally seen as impediments to outstanding leadership. The most important finding, however, is that there are culturally-contingent attributes that can help or hinder leadership. What is seen as a strength in one culture may be a considerable impediment in another culture. These findings appear in a paper titled: “EMICs and ETICS of Culturally-Endorsed Implicit Leadership Theories: Are Attributes of Charismatic/ Transformational Leadership Universally Endorsed?”which is being published in 1999 in Leadership Quarterly.

Business is global, but each business organization has a culture shaped by the business it is in and the people who run the business. Executives are themselves products of the unique cultures in which they have learned and conducted business. To see how cultures might come into play, we can easily imagine a situation in which a British executive who was trained at an American business school is asked to run the Argentine manufacturing facility of a Japanese firm. What leadership attributes should this executive work to develop: Japanese? Argentine? American? British? This executive needs to understand the culture within which he works and how his employees perceive leadership. GLOBE has found that “one size does not fit all”. An executive needs to develop bespoke leadership attributes, tailored to the unique culture within which he or she works.

A general description of a leader might be someone who is charismatic and seeks to develop a transformational style of leadership. Charismatic/transformational leadership is thought to broaden and elevate the interests of followers, generate awareness and acceptance among the followers of the purpose and mission of the group and motivate followers to go beyond their self-interests for the good of the organization. But different cultural groups may vary in their conceptions of the most important characteristics of charismatic/transformational leadership. In some cultures, one might need to take strong, decisive action in order to be seen as a leader, while in other cultures consultation and a democratic approach may be the preferred approach to exercising effective leadership. GLOBE ask what the leadership behaviors and attributes that are reported to be effective or ineffective across cultures, especially where they are related to charismatic/transformational leadership. Managerial practices and motivational techniques that are legitimate and acceptable in on culture may not be in another.

For example, many attributes associated with charisma are seen as contributing to outstanding leadership, but the term “charisma” invokes ambivalence in several countries. There is concern in some cultures that people tend to lose their balance and perspective as a result of an excessive focus on achievement created by charismatic leaders. Certainly the most notorious example of a charismatic leader is Hitler.

Leaders are expected to have vision, but how this is displayed differs from culture to culture. In China, the influence of Confucian values make people wary of leaders who talk without engaging in specific action. Indian managers, on the other hand, care less about visionaries, preferring bold assertive styles of leadership. Leaders are often thought to be risk- takers, but GLOBE found that risk taking is not universally valued as contributing to outstanding leadership.

Communication skills are also important to the leader, but again, how these skills are perceived differs among and within cultures. What constitutes a good communicator is likely to vary greatly across cultures. American managers are more likely to provide directions to subordinates on a face-to-face basis while Japanese managers are likely to use written memos. In the U.S. subordinates are usually provided negative feedback directly from their supervisors, while in Japan such feedback is usually channeled through a peer of the subordinates. These differences reflect the U.S. individualistic norm of “brute honesty” and the Japanese collectivistic norm of “face-saving”.

There are profound differences in the preferred use of language, as well as nonverbal cues. In many cultures, interrupting someone is considered to be impolite, while in most Latin cultures, interrupting conveys that one is interested in what the other person in saying. In Asian cultures the pauses between speakers are often much longer than what we find in the West. Cultural differences are found as well in gestures, intonation, and the use of humor.

The GLOBE study found that several attributes reflecting charismatic/transformational leadership are universally endorsed as contributing to outstanding leadership. These attributes include: foresight, a willingness to encourage colleagues and staff, communicativeness, trustworthiness, a dynamic presence, a positive attitude, and being seen as a confidence builder. Certain charismatic attributes are perceived to be culturally contingent. These include enthusiasm, risk-taking, ambition, humility, sincerity, sensitivity, and compassion. Future GLOBE studies will examine the critical issue of whether leaders who are seen to act in accordance with their culturally-endorsed leadership theories are more effective than those who do not act according to culturally imposed expectations. Other questions GLOBE will continue to examine include how labels such as visionary, compassionate, or motivational are interpreted in various cultures. A related question includes that of how and when specific behaviors will reflect such attributes in a given culture.

Paradoxes in leadership abound. Instant communications and easy accessibility may shrink this world, but distinct cultures have always and will always continue to exist throughout the global economy. The most successful businesses will be those that not only understand the nuances that exist among different cultures, but train their executives to lead in ways that demonstrate an understanding of and appreciation for distinct cultures. The global executive’s leadership style will need to be protean, changing from situation to situation. Sensitivity to the unique culture within which the executive works may well be the most important leadership attribute in the global economy.

 

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