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Global Leadership: What Makes the Perfect Leader?

Many anthropologists and intercultural specialists have developed cross-cultural comparative models showing the main cultural differences between cultures. Their contributions as well as those of many other interculturalists such as Edward T. Hall are recognised as foundation models in the field of intercultural communication.

Although comprehensive, most of the work in the field to date is comparative, country-specific and focuses on elements of interaction and communication. Only of few cultural studies have focused specifically on how culture affects leaders and managers around the world. Even fewer studies have analysed the required set of skills and leadership capabilities managers need when working in a cross cultural environment.

The GLOBE project is one research programme that looks to determine what qualities and characteristics the ideal leader should have in different cultures and what impact these cultural values and qualities have on global leadership, organisational culture and processes. Initiated by Robert J. House in 1991 and managed at Thunderbird University in Glendale California, the GLOBE project involves about 170 scholars from 61 countries.

By reviewing expected leadership qualities across these cultures, the GLOBE model shows what leaders should be aware of when operating in that country. For example, the research suggests that Americans look for leaders who will give them power and autonomy and lead the way with bold and clever ideas. Chinese on the other hand typically want their leaders to be able to give precise directions and orders but also inspirational and someone to look up to.

To find and isolate the most relevant cultural features, researchers working on the GLOBE project wrote and translated two questionnaires which focused on working styles within companies as well as the society as a whole. Through the analysis of the completed questionnaires nine cultural orientations were identified that relate to the characteristics of the perfect leader.  These nine cultural orientations are described briefly below.

Uncertainty Avoidance: the extent to which person or organisation tries to avoid unknown or unexpected situations and controls future events. In a management context this can be illustrated by the number of processes companies implement, the use of social rituals or the importance of bureaucracy.

Power Distance: how the power is shared within society or an organisation. The power distance value directly impacts organisational charts, the way decisions are made or even how people interact.

Individual Collectivism: how organisations and society incite people to share or undertake collective actions. In the business world, this value impacts the way people work, for instance alone or within groups.

Societal Collectivism: the level of pride and loyalty displayed by individuals toward their family, social group or company.

Gender Egalitarianism: how power is shared between men and women and how differences between genders are perceived. In organisations, this value is illustrated by the presence (or not) of women within the decision making sphere.

Assertiveness: the accepted degree of directness and aggressiveness within social and work relationships between individuals.

Future Orientation: the extent to which persons and organisations are ready to plan for the future. In organisations this value is illustrated in the confidence displayed in the future, the will of investing or the entrepreneurial spirit expected from the employees.

Performance Orientation: how performance and striving for excellence is rewarded by society or organisations. Organisations in strong performance oriented cultures will emphasise professional success before personal development.

Humane Orientation: the degree of reward individuals can get through kind, generous and altruistic behaviour.

The research conducted to date has been presented in the following two books:

  • Culture, Leadership and Organisation – an overview of the methodology and an analysis of 62 countries
  • Culture and Leadership across the World – an in-depth analysis of 25 countries

Cross cultural awareness training courses like Effective Global Leadership or Building International Teams can increase your understanding of cultural models such as the GLOBE project and how you can use them in your working context. Being aware of cultural differences and leadership expectations around the world will help you to motivate, inspire and manage counterparts more effectively while minimising the risks of critical incidents or misunderstanding.


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