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Leading across Cultures: Can you do it?

Do you find that interrupting and asking questions to others during a meeting is rude? Do you find that talking about your personal life at work is strange and out of place? These are indicative of the cultural differences between nations.

The main reason for this is that culture differ in their implied leadership style, the foundational beliefs about the qualities that individuals need to display to be considered leaders. Leaders authentically represent the values reflecting their culture, and depending on the cultural context, your typical style and behavioural tendencies may be an asset or weakness.

Differing cultures leading to differing leadership styles can be understood by Hofstede's dimensions of culture.

Singapore scores high on the dimension of power distance, where power is centralised and people rely on their bosses and rules. Attitudes toward supervisors are formal, and employees tend to expect to be told what to do. Singapore is also a highly collectivistic community, meaning the 'we' is important, sometimes even more important than the 'I'. Because of this, harmony of the group and politeness sometimes takes precedence over honest feedback.

However, imagine if a Singaporean leader had to guide an American employee. How might that turn out? A good example of cultural mismatch was the case of a very successful individual, Oliver Chalon, who worked in France as a manager in Michelin who was known throughout his career to achieve results and had a track record of motivating a workforce of over 1500 European employees to restructure a 12 Billion Euro business. He had a lot of cultural experience in London and Netherlands, but found that his leadership style did not work in the United States. The employees found him distant, arrogant and demotivating. He had to implement a style that fulfilled the needs of his current employees in the U.S.

With globalization happening more rapidly, it is of utmost importance that leaders are able to lead across cultures and be adaptive in their leadership style when dealing with diverse groups of people. You might not always be leading people from the same culture.

As much as Singapore has been found to fit in the Eastern stereotype of leadership style, two studies in Singapore reveal that the culture for leadership here is evolving. The first study involved semi-structured interviews of 25 Singaporeans, both MBA students and practitioners, and the second study involved emailed surveys to more than 300 Singaporean supervisors.

Nine dimensions of leadership humility emerged from the two studies:

1. Being self-aware and honest about one's own weakness

2. Recognising strengths and achievements of followers

3. Modelling 'teachability' and being correctable

4. Treating others with respect

Five of the nine dimensions were found to be unique to the Singaporean studies:

5. Leading by example

6. Showing modesty

7. Working together for the collective good

8. Showing empathy and being approachable

9. Mentoring and coaching

The dimensions reveal that there is an emphasis in Asian definitions of humility attributes: empathy, consideration, respect and willingness to forget one's hierarchical position. This type of leadership is not very common in high power distant cultures such as Singapore. In Singapore and many Asian countries, inequalities in power are a given, and understood as normal. However, with the results of the study, it can be seen that cultures are no longer as rigidly segmented as before, and leadership styles are evolving globally. With this in mind, as a leader, remember:

A full recipe for leadership success requires culture-specific leadership.


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