British linguist Richard D. Lewis has explored in depth how leadership style differs across cultures and countries. His diagrams of Leadership Styles, published in When Cultures Collide, offer wonderful insight into why so many multinational efforts run into problems. Anyone doing business across borders needs to understand these differences and adapt their own style accordingly.
Different Culture, Different Leadership
The variation of styles — from structured individualism of America, to consensus rule of Asia — fit preconceptions about foreign culture. Even so, it’s important to understand the meaning behind each model, and also be aware of individual variation. The models are not unilaterally true across a country. Every individual will have their own blended style of leadership.
See Lewis’ Leadership Styles diagrams, inset, but also be aware that stereotyping is risky, as Lewis himself warns: “Determining national characteristics is treading a minefield of inaccurate assessment and surprising exception. There is, however, such a thing as a national norm.”
Lewis also argues that these cultural characteristics won’t change anytime soon. He writes, “Deeply rooted attitudes and beliefs will resist a sudden transformation of values when pressured by reformists, governments or multinational conglomerates.” While the “Westernization” of many Eastern countries gets a lot of press, most of these changes are superficial. Cultural preferences are deeply rooted. We learn about our culture from birth. Especially in countries with thousands-years-old history and culture, changes are slow to emerge. Stated more directly: Individuals may jump at the chance to adopt foreign practices, such as capital investment, but this doesn’t mean they are also adopting Western culture.
Management gurus have time and again tried to quantify and distill the secret of successful management into an easily followed formula. Peter Drucker, James Champy, Frederick Taylor, Henri Foyal, Frederick Brooks, and Mike Hammer have all put down their thoughts on the topic. But each has placed a Western emphasis on their particular management magic (and, except for Foyal, a very American emphasis).
As I’ve pointed out many times, cultural conflict is common across multinational organizations. Learning how to avoid the conflict — misunderstandings, misinterpretation, and direct cultural incompatibility — is the first step.
Multinational Leadership Success
There is no single management tool that can work in the global landscape. The cultural intricacies that define how people interact, both in a business setting and a social setting, run far too deep. And, just as management styles depend on environment, so do our relationship-building tools. Creating a successful International business relationship depends so strongly on cross-cultural awareness, in fact, that without extensive exposure to foreign culture most efforts are rife with failure.
Check out this short six-part series that talks about how business cultural preferences affect 27 project management disciplines.