Leadership is culturally contingent

Leadership is culturally contingent

What is leadership? If you ask ten people, you probably get ten answers. Many people maybe cannot to define but ‘I know it when I see it’.

Then, maybe you could relate some elements of leadership. If you ask people coming from the same country, it’s probably you get some similar answers. Try to ask people coming from other countries and see what happens.

Leadership is hard to define because our beliefs, our convictions and our assumptions impact on the way we view it, and its importance. Therefore, leadership is culturally contingent.

Why culturally contingent?

To understand this, we should start by telling what national culture is. National culture is the norms, beliefs, customs and values shared by the people in a nation; it is a collective programming of the mind that makes a group of people distinct from another.

And we can tell when we land in a different culture from ours. Without a lot of thinking, you can relate some differences (mainly stereotypes coming from the general knowledge, unless you have lived there) between Americans, Spaniards or Chinese.

Culture makes that, for example, some societies consider that the best leaders are men while others think that men and women equally could be good leaders. Or what makes that some societies prefer humble leaders (in many Asian countries, for example) instead of powerful, autocratic leaders (like in some western countries).

The world is not as it is, it is like we see it (the map is not the territory). And, keeping in mind that our views are highly impacted by our culture, we can assume so is the paradigm we have to judge leadership.

Leaders’ behaviour and organizations are also impacted by culture

It is not only that our views on leadership are highly impacted by our culture. The leader’s behaviour and organizational culture are also affected by societal cultural norms of shared values.

As any other person or member in an organization, a leader is immersed in a particular culture. Therefore, their behaviour and management practices are likely to reflect that behaviour patterns preferred in that said culture.

This has deeper implications in how things are done in a company: the selection criteria for hiring and promotions will reflect the values of the culture.

Role models will be chosen according to what that culture implicitly value the most. Recognition and professional career development will be also impacted. Even industrial practices (think about a culture highly driven by objectives and the impact on ethics – the end justifies the means-, for example).

As a result, the effectiveness of the leader is also highly impacted by culture. Leaders need to be accepted in the organization; otherwise they will find hard to influence their people. If they cannot do that, their effectiveness will go down.

In this global world, we need global leaders.

Understanding the importance of the culture becomes more relevant in the world we live today. This is, more than ever a global world, and we need leaders that can work anywhere.

A global leader requires an open mind to understand the differences and flexibility to adapt their style to what is needed. Despite definitions, leadership is about influencing people. And you cannot influence them if you don’t understand them first: leadership depends on the context and, therefore, leadership is culturally contingent.