Navigating Leadership Challenges Across Cultures


Logic seems like it would be the great bridge to solving every problem. We often think of logic as a transcendent truth that overcomes all emotions, prejudices, and even experiences.  “You can’t argue with logic.” The problem turns out to be that logic is much more personal than objective. In fact, because logic is in the eye of the beholder, it is often the barrier rather than the bridge.


This is certainly true in working across cultures. Culture has been defined as “the way we do things around here.”  Generally, the approaches that seemed to yield the best results over time end up being adopted by most people. At some point people quit asking is there a better way and life and work styles become normative. This applies to meal times, bed times, communication preferences, acceptable leadership approaches, and decision making. 


When confronted with different cultural norms, we naturally reflect on why our way is superior and more logical. For example, “why would everyone take a nap in the afternoon.” The question from another perspective is rephrased, “why would anyone not take a nap in the afternoon.” 


The power of culture is that it has a deep impact on behavior and usually occurs naturally, without much questioning. Culture is our default setting. Culture can be a performance accelerator as communication, decision making, and leadership styles are quickly understood and accepted. It is this hidden power of culture that creates the challenges when we move beyond our home culture. Yet, the benefits of different perspectives and approaches can provide insights and illumination that are never seen through our filter of, “that is the way we do things around here.”


Erin Myer’s, The Culture Map, provides a number of both painful and humorous illustrations of crossing culture as well as a handy eight component framework to help navigate our cross cultural encounters. The book clearly communicates that one person’s logic and preferred approach can be quite alien to another person. Multiple illustrations deal with leaders who are doing all the right things just in the wrong culture. 


A common leadership challenge is coming from an egalitarian culture (we are all the same) and trying to lead in a hierarchical culture (the boss needs to make the decisions) and vice versa.    Culture is not simply our preferred communication techniques but reflect deeply held values.   If I believe that everyone is equal and as the leader I am no better than anyone else, how do I stay my authentic self and lead when everyone around feels that I am not serving them well unless I tell them what to do.


Myers notes that despite most people in global polls say they prefer an egalitarian leader; it really depends on the culture. She tells the story of a rising Danish manager who is assigned to lead an office in Russia.  Denmark is a very egalitarian culture (“the managing director is just two steps up from the janitor.”)  The new manager arrived, insisted on being called by his first name and chose not to have an office on the executive floor just a workplace among his staff.  After a few months, frustration sets in – on everyone’s part. For the Danish manager, his Russian staff lack initiative, constantly ask for his approvals, and call him Mr. President.  The Russian staff see him as weak and ineffective and by giving up his office on the top floor he has sent the message his team is of no importance. Conversely, leaders coming from a hierarchical culture often feel they are not respected and valued by a team that treats them as one of the team.   


As with all cross cultural strategies, it starts with recognizing the differences. Then a willful decision to make accommodations so the other party can more comfortably participate in the relationship. Leaders who want to serve always start with an others-centered attitude. This is true if you are crossing an ocean or a hallway.    


In some settings, effective servant leadership is very egalitarian. The leader serves by reversing the organizational chart and serving from below.  Her leadership is characterized by humility, accessibility and a tendency to delegate decision making. But in a hierarchical setting, the leader may see that caring and developing their team means making more decisions and elevating their status in the community to bring greater pride to their team.


Myers tells the story of an Australian working in China who stopped riding his bike to work when he realized it was embarrassing his Chinese staff.  He also experienced frustration that his team wouldn’t challenge his ideas. Over time he modified his leadership style to reflect the expectations of his team. He wrote, “I have developed a very close relationship with my team members over the past six years – almost father-son connection. And I have come to love managing in China. There is great beauty in giving a clear instruction and watching your competent and enthusiastic team willing to attack the project without pushing back or challenging.”


Being a servant leader may require you to be both egalitarian and hierarchical depending on the situation. Effective leadership is about learning what works best to make your followers most successful.