Adapt Leadership Style to Cultural Context

Adapt Leadership Style to Cultural Context by Dr. Greg Waddell

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The days of Mom and Pop businesses that catered to people who looked, felt, thought, and talked the same as Mom and Pop are over. Ethnic diversity has reached even the most remote and isolated regions of our nation. In what ways are you preparing to build a successful enterprise in the midst of this diversity?

I don’t lament this reality and long for the days when everyone was like me. I rejoice and stand in awe at the wondrous diversity that God has placed on this earth. Here are three reason why I get excited about diversity:

  1. Ethnic and cultural diversity is here to stay. It’s always better to accept reality than it is to live in denial.
  2. While cultures differ in fundamental ways, these differences follow certain patterns and can be learned. We CAN learn to do business with people from other cultures. It’s been happening for centuries all over the world.
  3. The ethnic diversity in which we live today provides an excellent opportunity to discover new approaches to leadership.

This requires effort and preparation. It can also be intimidating because it requires seeing yourself through the eyes of another culture.

Many of the management theories that were inscribed in the hallowed pages of management literature of the 1970s and 80s is now obsolete. Almost all of the research behind it was carried out in the context of a Euro-Anglo cultural background.

Don’t get me wrong. I think there is a lot that we can learn from these classics, as long as we see them as one way to envision leadership and as long as we remain open to the very real possibility that these concepts may not work today.

As I’ve already mentioned, cultures differ in some predictable ways. If you are willing to do what it takes, you CAN learn to be culturally sensitive.

Once you learn these differences, you will be more adept at adjusting your leadership behavior to fit the situation. Here is a short list of some of the cultural patterns that I have found helpful in understanding cultural diversity.

  • Power Distance. How people view power and the degree to which differences in power are not only allowed but even preferred.
  • Individualism versus Collectivism. Some cultures think as a group—others think individually. The Anglo-European culture of the U.S. has been consistently identified as high in individualism.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance. This is the degree to which a culture sees uncertainty as a bad thing, something to be avoided.
  • Contextual versus Verbal communication. Some cultures allow the context to communicate meaning without words. In the U.S., we usually feel the need to say it.
  • Human nature. Some cultures sees human nature as fundamentally evil while others as fundamentally good.
  • Work and Leisure. Many cultures see work as a necessary evil needed to get to what life is really about. Others sees work as the main point of life.

This is not an exhaustive list. I only share it to show that cultural differences can be understood. They don’t represent some deep mystery impossible to decipher.

The main requirement is to have an inquisitive spirit and a willingness to experience some discomfort for the sake of learning to see the world from a different perspective.

What about you? What is your feeling toward diversity? To what extent is it making an impact on your organization? How well do you think companies are adapting?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

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