Nearly every aspect of leadership is affected by culture. Bernard Bass said, “The values, beliefs, norms and ideals embedded in a culture affect leadership behavior, goals, and strategies of organizations.” For example, North Americans emphasize individual ability and effort as a basis for promotions. In India, advancement is attributed to externalities such as marriage, friends, family and corruption.
While leading a workshop for ninety men in Canada some years ago, I was duly informed that there would be ten men at the workshop from a local native tribe and that two of them were “elders.” Many of the leadership protocols for the workshop were thrown out or modified significantly to accommodate the cultural requirement for elder respect and an increase in overall modesty. While leading a workshop in Germany with a combination of Jewish men and German men who were a generation away from the Nazi movement, I learned the leadership tool known as “throw away the rule book.” The intense feelings in this cultural environment required a distinctly non-American, “stay a step behind” leadership style.
Though situations, belief systems, and transactional opportunities change, the call for leaders who are committed to transformational principles, emotional maturity, and who have enough inner peace to be truly interested in others, is constant. Quinn (2000) writes, “normal assumptions of externally driven transaction and exchange identify the expectations and then transact the process. Internally driven people act according to conscience, even if the acts involve personal risk.” Inner stability allows natural responsiveness vs. reactivity to the infinitely changing environment – cultural or other. “At the individual level, leadership development would involve the teaching of mental clearing/meditation practices so that the person learned to experience clarity and peace of mind” (Cacioppe, 1997). Beyond intellectual and transactional skill, leaders must have a sort of wisdom that can flow with cultural and other environmental fluctuations. “The development of this ‘leadership wisdom’ is put forward as a real need in the current environment with its confusing and often contradictory emphasis on improving both profits and quality of service” (p. 336).
Culture is one of many external variations in which leaders must be enthusiastically engaged. It is another area that requires personal reflection related to one’s own cultural heritage and influences. As in all areas of leadership, successful interaction with others begins with acceptance of self.
Bass, B. M. (2008). The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory, research, and managerial applications (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.
Cacioppe, R. (1997). Leadership moment by moment! Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 18, 335-345.
Quinn, R. E. (2000). Change the world: How ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.