Leadership Is Culturally Bound

Leaders must adapt style to different national cultures. What works in the United States, for instance, isn’t likely to work in France or Indonesia. Fred Hassan, chairman and CEO of Schering Plough, a pharmaceutical company, argues that a global attitude is a critical skill for today’s leaders – that is, to be effective you need to have a curiosity about the world, accept what different cultures have to offer, and adapt yourself to the cultural environment. A GE executive recalls when he used his American leadership style in Japan: Nothing happened. He quickly realized that he had to adapt his approach to act more as a consultant to his colleagues and to adopt a team based motivational decision making process rather than the more vocal style tends to be common in the West. In Japan the silence of a leader means far more than a thousand words uttered by somebody else.

Leaders are also constrained by the cultural conditions that their followers have come to expect. For instance, American leaders are expected to empower followers. However, followers in Mexico and some Asian countries look to their leaders to provide structure and direction. For example, a study in Hong Kong found that leaders were expected to be relatively autocratic.

Consistent with the contingency approach, leaders need to adjust style to the unique cultural aspects of a country. For example, a manipulative or autocratic style is compatible with high power distance, and it is found high power distance scores in Russia, Spain, Arab, Far Eastern, and most Latin countries. Power distance rankings should also be good indicators of employee willingness to accept participative leadership. Participation is likely to be most effective in low power distance cultures as exist in Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden.

The global research program, which we introduced, has gathered data on approximately 18,000 middle managers in 825 organizations, covering 62 counties. It’s the most comprehensive cross cultural study of leadership ever undertaken. So its findings should not be quickly dismissed. It is illuminating that one of the results coming from the GLOBE program is that there are some universal aspects to leadership. Specifically, a number of the elements making up transformational leadership appear to be associated with effective leadership regardless of what country the leader is in. This conclusion is very important because it fits in the face of the contingency view that leadership style needs to adapt to cultural differences.

The adaptation of leadership styles to different contingencies has been well characterized by the developers of the leadership continuum concept. The concept is leadership as involving a variety of styles, ranging from one that is highly boss-centered to one that is highly subordinate-centered. The styles vary with the degree of freedom a leader or manager grants to subordinates.

Elements of transformational leadership appear universal are Vision, foresight, providing encouragement, trustworthiness, dynamism, positive thinking, and pro-activeness. The results led two members of the GLOBE team to conclude that effective business leaders in any country are expected by their subordinates to provide powerful and proactive vision to guide the company into the future, strong motivational skills to stimulate all employees to fulfill the vision, and excellent planning skills to assist in implementing the vision.

What might explain the universal appeal of the transformational leadership attributes? It has been suggested that pressures towards common technologies and management practices, as a result of global competition and multinational influences may make some aspects of leadership universally accepted. If true, we may be able to select and train leaders in a universal style and thus significantly raise the quality of leadership worldwide.