I’m always fascinated when leadership is taught and certain types of leadership are lifted up as better than others. Sometimes I wholeheartedly agree with the premise under discussion. On other occasions I wish people would consider more than their own national culture and bias when discussing leadership. Of course there is a very valid argument that leadership is contextual and cultural. Leading people effectively in an Asian country demands different leadership skills than it does in an African country – we could compare all continents in this way. The nuances come when we are discussing multi-national organizations with multi-national workforces. And additionally there are other environmental variables to factor in when considering leadership style, e.g. client base, political and commercial context, cultural norms, etc.
Many years ago, having learned my leadership craft in the UK and working internationally, I decided that there were things about US leadership behaviors that I wanted to learn from. So in joining a US multi-national I figured I would have a great opportunity to do just that. I did indeed become much better at effusive praise of team members and colleagues (something I think is more prevalent in the US culture). I did however also retain my UK candidness in speaking up and confronting issues with honesty (something I didn’t find as present in the US culture …. although I’m told this differs by State!) Some of my childhood and early schooling was in Sri Lanka and India. I love this part of the world and have worked for many companies based there. I honor the bias to please people, to show compassion and the incredible work ethic. But leaders who over promise and under deliver drives me crazy. I also disliked the backdrop of the caste system that stigmatized some of the employment practices. I worked for a time in the Middle East and saw the impact of a more autocratic leadership style ….. which can have its virtues. I did also see the dishonesty and favoritism that existed within the backdrop of a tribal culture – this really rubbed me up the wrong way. I like the emphasis on respect and honor prevalent in East Asian cultures, but there are elements of exploitation that I don’t like. There are many examples of leadership norms that prevail effectively in different parts of the world and across different cultures.
More so now than ever, people from diverse cultures, countries and social backgrounds are working together. The best leaders are those who learn how to lead people with conviction, agility, sensitivity and flexibility. There is no one culture that has 100% ownership of the ‘best leadership’ space. The best leaders need to be true to themselves and also true to those they lead, the organizations they lead and the environment in which they operate. Leaders need to develop their skills of collaboration as well as decisiveness, they need to be respectful as well as exercising clear judgment, they need to offer praise as well as giving honest feedback, and they need to bring compassion to the workplace as well as commercial excellence.
Often the best leaders have experienced diverse cultures. That is why international assignments or the opportunity to experience different countries is an excellent way to grow the best leaders. In the best recipes there are multiple ingredients that make the end product excellent. The same goes for leaders.