19/04/2012 17:30

Adapting To The Cultural Jungle To Lead In The Global Village


No doubt that one of the most popular buzz-terms of our time is “global leadership” – I just did a Google search and got no less than 3 100 000 hits! So while it seems that a significant proportion of the world’s online population is either training others to be global leaders or aspiring to be global leaders, I reflected on just what it takes to be a global leader.

As a student in the turbulent days of apartheid South Africa, I worked in Olifants Camp in the Kruger Park on a part-time base and it is there where I got my first glimpse of global leadership. In Kruger as in most of South Africa at the time the racial divide was clear and strongly imposed through company policy and the laws of the country. This often caused tension in the workplace as “whites” were generally in charge (irrespective of ability and skills) while “non-whites” were expected to fill the lower ranks and do what they were told without questioning the authority or competency of those in charge. As a result, many non-white workers begrudgingly went about their work, doing the bare minimum and understandingly showing no commitment or loyalty to the manager or company. But in the restaurant at Olifants Camp things were different.

Dieter (I’m using a pseudonym, not to protect him but because I really can’t remember his name) was a German national who had only immigrated to South Africa two years before. Short and skinny with a pale complexion and an accent that was difficult to decode, he sort of stood out for all the wrong reasons in an environment where big and rugged males grappled for primacy. However, it soon became evident that Dieter had an amazing ability to motivate, build trust, set the direction and ultimately lead. Within only a few months this somewhat odd-looking little German was able to cross and even mend cultural and political divides like few others. He molded his extremely diverse team of chefs, kitchen helpers, waiters and assistant-managers into a cohesive and effective unit. He became the father, brother, friend and mentor to many who worked under him, but he never compromised on quality and maintaining the highest standards of service. The team thrived and so did the restaurant.

So what did Dieter do that was different from those who failed to lead in multi-cultural environments?  He was able to find cross-cultural ‘common ground’ – align his leadership with the cultural demands and expectations of those he was leading – which I believe is the critical foundation for effective global leadership. The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Program (GLOBE) and other research has shown that what followers expect of leaders – what leaders can and cannot do and the status and authority given to leaders – vary a great deal as a result of the cultural forces in the countries or regions in which the leaders operate. So how can leaders aiming to lead in a globalized environment determine the best possible leadership approach?

While I have written about the skills required to lead in a globalized world and how thepurpose of leadership had changed in the 21st century before,  Jan Muczyk and Daniel Holt’s framework for global leadership probably provides one of the best roadmaps for leaders looking to lead in a diverse global context. They developed their framework by mapping five dimensions of leadership onto Project GLOBE’s cultural dimensions (if you’re unfamiliar with these cultural dimensions, the Grovewell LLC website and the Geert Hofstede site provides some good information). The framework can be used to adapt and align your leadership style with the culture in which you operate:1

  • Consideration: To be considerate is valued in all cultures, even in those that score high on high assertiveness and masculinity and low humane orientation. However, leaders who operate in societies that score high on femininity and humane orientation and low on assertiveness should take even more care to show consideration. Even more – leaders who operate in societies with a high score in collectivism (group-orientated as opposed to being individualistic) would do well to also show some consideration for their followers’ families (Examples: Southern Europe, Central and Southern America, Africa, Asia.)
  • Concern for Production: To be competitive in the global marketplace leaders in all countries need to be concerned about production. Leaders operating in cultures scoring high on uncertainty avoidance with an external environmental orientation need to be even more focused on production, especially when these cultural traits are combined with a short-term orientation (Examples: Central and South America, Eastern Europe.)
  • Participation /Democratic: Cultures which are low on power-distance and uncertainty avoidance but high on individualism and femininity, often value democratic decision-making the most. Leaders operating in societies where there is low regard for hierarchy and chains of command would also do well to engage their followers through democratic decision making and goal setting. (Examples: United States, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand.)
  • Directive/Autocratic: While in the Western context the stereotypical autocrat is often depicted as a power-hungry brute, this is not always the case. In some cultures leaders are expected to make the important decisions, set clear goals and give clear directions to their followers. This leadership style is particularly suitable for collectivist cultures which are high on power distance, assertiveness, masculinity and uncertainty avoidance. It is also often the expected leadership style where hierarchies are respected. (Examples: Most of Africa, some countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, some countries in South America, Middle East.)
  • Incentive for Performance: Different cultures use different reward structures. Leaders operating in cultures with a high score for individualism and performance orientation should consider reward systems where individual performance is directly rewarded. However, in cultures with high collectivism and low performance orientation reward systems should rather aim to recognize the entire group or organization’s performance. (Examples for individual reward: United States, Eastern Europe. Examples for group rewards: Central and South America, most of Africa, most of Asia, Middle East.)

Leadership is never easy and a foreign culture can be a jungle in which one can easily get lost. However, I learned from a pale little German that no matter how great the cultural divide, it can be crossed and even harnessed for great success. To do so, global leaders need to study the culture or cultures in which they operate and then create ‘common ground’ by adapting their leadership approach to be aligned with the demands and expectations of that culture. 



1. Muczyk, J. P., & Holt, D T. (2008). Towards a cultural contingency model of leadership. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 14 (4), 277-286. Muczyk, J. P., & Reimann, B. C. (1987). The case for directive leadership. Academy of Management Executive, 1 (3), 301-311. Muczyk, J. P., & Reimann, B. C. (1989). MBO as complement to effective leadership. Academy of Management Executive, 3 (2), 131-138. Muczyk, J. P., & Steel, R. P. (1998). Leadership style and the turnabout executive. Business Horizons, 41 (2), 39-46.




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