Through the acknowledgment of different cultural values it is possible to achieve high performance based on the understanding of diverse leadership styles. This allow comparing cultural dimensions and their impact in leadership such as: Individualism vs. Collectivism, Cooperative vs. Competitive, Short-Term vs. Long-Term, Direct vs. Indirect Communication, Being vs. Doing, Low Power Distance vs. High Power Distance And Low vs. High Uncertainty Avoidance. A case of study is presented in this article between an Anglo model vs. a Confucian Asian Model.
One of my clients was always complaining about the lack of leadership of one of his consultants. From his point of view, this consultant was intelligent, had business acumen and was able to follow rules. However, he didn’t show any interest in being promoted to a higher position. When my client asked him directly in front of others what he thought about a decision or asked for feedback, the consultant struggled to communicate his ideas out loud.
My client was feeling uncomfortable about this situation and often tended to simplify the facts by categorising his consultant as a submissive person. But at the same time he couldn’t understand how such an efficient and talented person had difficulties showing leadership.
My client mentioned that his consultant had an Australian-Chinese background and he was starting to consider that this could be one of the explanations of his behavior stating: ‘there is a kind of cultural barrier happening here’. When he came to me asking for help, the first thing that I told him was that he might be right in his initial conclusions since his consultant could have a different leadership style and what my client was simplifying as lack of ambition, indirect communication and long-term decision-making could be linked to a different perspective of the same cultural values.
The first thing that we put on the table was the concept of High Power Distance [HPD], in other words: respect for authority and the leaders who lead us. In countries like China, if a person is in a higher position than ours that person should make the decisions. Also, that person is expected to have the knowledge to lead the team with wisdom. In some cases, it is better for that person to give a wrong answer than to show ignorance. Hence subordinates avoid contradicting the authority because it is seen as lack of respect, and they wait for being told what to do.
When comparing this with Anglo leadership, the story turns around since direct feedback, initiative and ambition are well regarded. The Anglo leadership model is based on Low Power Distance [LPD] and empowered decision-making is expected across all levels. Therefore, from an Anglo perspective, a person like the consultant is labeled as a submissive employee who will be in the same position forever. However, from the consultant’s point of view, LPD employees are seen as people hungry for power who do not respect others’ leadership.
Which one is better? There is no black and white answer to this because leadership style depends on context. David Livermore defines LPD as a dimension that emphasizes equality and shared decision-making and HPD as a dimension based on status and decisions made by superiors.
How could my client possibly solve this conundrum? After taking a Cultural Intelligence [CQ] assessment, I provided him with a Cultural Cluster Manual that showed the diverse cultural value dimensions based on different cultural backgrounds (please see the table at the end of this article). This allowed him to compare his cultural values with the cultural values of his consultant. Together, we checked a list of dimensions that influence leadership such as: Individualism vs. Collectivism, Cooperative vs. Competitive, Short-Term vs. Long-Term, Direct vs. Indirect Communication, Being vs. Doing, LPD vs. HPD and Low vs. High Uncertainty Avoidance.
Our coaching sessions became a kind of game in which my client was learning more and more about his own cultural values and how to intertwine them with the cultural values of his consultant. Together we planned a strategy to generate actions to solve this riddle. My client had a problem-solving mind and was fascinated by the idea of working his head around this riddle.
We tested tailored tactics to enhance communications between him and his consultant. For example, if he wanted to receive feedback from his consultant he sent him a message in a private chat asking him what he had thought about a meeting or the outcome of a project. In this way, his consultant didn’t feel that he was stepping over the line of his boss’s leadership and he was provided with a safe space to communicate freely.
Another of the dimensions to tackle was the way in which my client and his consultant addressed decision-making. My client’s assessment results showed that he had a high score in individualism and taking action or what David Livermore defines as ‘doing’. By definition, he was an individualistic–doing leader and as a result he believed that ‘individual goals and rights were more important than personal relationships, and that task completion took precedence over social commitments’.
Meanwhile, his consultant had moderate to high levels of collectivism and being. Therefore he believed that ‘personal relationships and benefiting the group were more important than individual goals and task completion, and that social commitments were equally important’.
These results clearly showed that my client and his consultant had opposite views in terms of tasks and decision-making. For my client, his consultant should have been able to make decisions by himself and generate outcomes. He didn’t want to hear much about how he would do it; he just wanted to see results. However, his consultant needed my client’s guidance and consensus before making any decision.
Through the acknowledgment of these cultural dimensions, my client understood that his leadership style was breaking down the communication with his consultant. Nonetheless, it seemed as if it was almost impossible to reconcile both parties without crossing into the realm of binary solutions: either my client must become more collaborative in terms of decision-making or his consultant must become more individualistic. Both scenarios presented a radical change in their personal leadership style.
But changes do not mean that everything needs to be moved up or down to make it work. Awareness is a powerful way of generating change. My client’s self-awareness about his doing–individualistic cultural values helped him understand how his leadership style could be uncomfortable for his consultant and vice versa. As a solution, my client and his consultant tried to put themselves in each other’s shoes and learnt how to reflect on the wrong behavior before pushing each other boundaries.
After a few months of coaching and testing of tactics, my client and his consultant started feeling more comfortable with their differences. They started making jokes about each other’s perspectives and challenging cultural differences to generate mutual understanding. By learning their cultural value dimensions they achieved a higher performance as a team and this allowed my client to promote his consultant confidently.
As a reader you may wonder what the point of going through all of this was? Wouldn’t it have been better just to find a person who suited the company’s leadership style? These are valid questions. However, as I mentioned in my last post, companies that invest in cultural diversity ensure innovative thinking and better adaptation to market needs; different researchers from Harvard, Stanford and Columbia University confirm this. They highlight how the intersection of different ways of thinking stimulates new and creative ideas plus the many benefits of employing a diverse workforce (link: http://www.theanpoexperience.com/cultural-diversity/investing-in-cultural-diversity-ensures-innovation/) Not to mention that we are becoming a more global and multicultural society which entails bigger opportunities for those organizations which align their future to diversity and inclusion.
Finally, I would like to give some tips about how to understand different leadership styles:
- As Eckhart Tolle wrote ‘Awareness is the greatest agent of change’. So, go to the Cultural Values Dimension table (From book Leading with CQ.Cultural Intelligence Center. David Livermore) and have a glance at the different cultural values depending on cultural backgrounds.
- See leadership differences as an opportunity to learn about your colleagues, employees, boss and yourself. Why would you see in monochrome when there is a world full of colours out there?
- Don’t judge leadership just by the package. Remember that what you may consider as ambitious, dynamic and fast, others could consider as abusive, pushing and sluggish.
- Implement cross-cultural awareness training for you and your people. We are happy to help you with this.
- Read or watch videos about different styles of leadership based on cultural background. I like the approach that David Livermore gives in his book Leading with CQ, but he is not the only source. Here are some links:
For more information about this topic, check our blog:
 David Livermore, Leading with CQ, AMACON, 2015, p.107
 David Livermore, Expand your borders, Cultural Intelligence Centre, LLC, 2013
 David Livermore, Leading with CQ,
 Expand your borders, 36-37