What Leadership Looks Like in Different Cultures

What Leadership Looks Like in Different Cultures

What makes a great leader? Although the core ingredients of leadership are universal (good judgment, integrity, and people skills), the full recipe for successful leadership requires culture-specific condiments. The main reason for this is that cultures differ in their implicit theories of leadership, the lay beliefs about the qualities that individuals need to display to be considered leaders. Depending on the cultural context, your typical style and behavioral tendencies may be an asset or a weakness. In other words, good leadership is largely personality in the right place.

Research has shown that leaders’ decision making, communication style, and dark-side tendencies are influenced by the geographical region in which they operate. Below we review six major leadership types that illustrate some of these findings.

The synchronized leader. Follow-through is key to being seen as leadership material in regions such as Northeast Asia (e.g., Mainland China, South Korea, and Japan), Indonesia, Thailand, the UAE, and much of Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile). In order to ascend the organizational ranks, such leaders must seek consensus on decisions and drive others through a keen process orientation. Business cycles can take longer as a result. But once all stakeholders are onboard, the deal needs to close fast or there is risk of jeopardizing the agreement. Synchronized leaders tend to be prudent and are more focused on potential threats than rewards.

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The opportunistic leader. Leaders who self-initiate and demonstrate flexibility on how to achieve a goal tend to be more desirable in Germanic and Nordic Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway), the UK, Western countries on which the UK had substantial cultural influence (the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand), and Asian countries that based their governing and economic institutions on the British model (India, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong). More or less individualistic, these leaders thrive in ambiguity. However, checking in frequently with team members is advised to ensure others keep up with changing plans. Opportunistic leaders tend to be ambitious risk takers.

The straight-shooting leader. In some regions employees expect their leaders to confront issues straightforwardly. In Northeast Asia and countries like the Netherlands, excessive communication is less appealing in the leadership ranks — people just want you to get to the point. Accordingly, task-oriented leaders are preferred. Impromptu performance review meetings with direct reports occur more commonly in these locations, and leaders address undesirable behaviors from team members as soon as they are observed. Straight-shooting leaders tend to be less interpersonally sensitive.

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