Culture matters. It’s more than just a “nice-to-have.” It’s a key factor in what makes or breaks today’s global leader. As a result, organisations in every sector are clamoring to find effective global leaders. Those who can lead with cultural intelligence are in demand. Yet much of what gets talked about in the global leadership space is informed by myths and anecdotes rather than empirical evidence. Even many top-rated MBA programs assure prospective students and employers that their curriculum will develop global leadership, yet there’s little done to measure and develop global capabilities in their students. And many organisations rely most on technical expertise when looking at whom to put in charge of a new, global project. I regularly encounter the following myths when reading, listening, and talking with others about global leadership:
Myth #1: Leadership Is a Sixth Sense
Conventional wisdom among many business executives is that leadership is a sixth sense: You either get it or you don’t. You have to lead from the gut. And frankly, there’s some research that backs up the surprising strength of seasoned executives using their gut more than data or detailed analysis to make good decisions. That’s because the “gut” has been subconsciously programmed through years of experience. The problem is, the subconscious programming is specific to a culture and may not be a reliable source when making split judgments and decisions in an unfamiliar culture. This explains why some individuals have been incredibly successful leading in one context only to fail miserably when attempting to lead in another. The “sixth sense” of leadership has to be retrained and developed when the cultural context changes.
Myth #2: The World Is Flat
I have enormous appreciation for Thomas Friedman’s compelling argument that the economic playing field has been leveled globally. A Filipino start-up firm can go head-to-head with a behemoth multinational company and leaders in all contexts are wise to wake up to this reality. But I often hear people applying Friedman’s “flat world” idea more broadly than it was intended. I’m regularly asked, “Isn’t there a global professional culture emerging where people are more alike today than different?”
When you observe people in airport lounges in Dubai, Sydney, and London, it certainly seems like we’re all more alike than different. And if you predominantly experience different cultures by visiting hotels and offices that are built for guests like you, it’s easy to miss the differences that exist. But when you get beneath the surface, you find we’re remarkably different. Leaders have their head in the sand if they think they can lead people the same way everywhere. Culture doesn’t explain everything. But it is one of the driving factors in how to effectively negotiate, build trust, foster innovation, and motivate people toward a shared objective.
Myth #3: If No One Follows, You Aren’t Leading
Surely a “leader” with no followers might not be leading. Or he or she might be attempting to lead in the wrong context. Leadership is not only about the values and style of the leader. As evidenced by the findings in the GLOBE leadership study, not all followers want the same thing from their leaders. The cultural values and preferences of the followers strongly influence who can effectively lead them. Some followers want larger-than-life, charismatic leaders like Bill Clinton. Others want modest, understated, practical leaders like Angela Merkel. This is explained by an idea known as implicit leadership theory, which says that whether you lead effectively is not only based on your leadership skills; it’s also a reflection of your followers’ expectations of leaders. Because culture is one of the variables that shapes what people expect and want from a leader, a culturally intelligent leader is wise to understand this before accepting a new leadership role or assigning someone else to one.
Myth #4: Matrix Models Are Better Suited for Leading Across Borders
Many companies have moved away from headquarter-centric models of leadership to matrix models. Reporting lines go in multiple directions, teams are co-located, and decision-making is more collaborative than top-down. Most of the world, however, prefers a more hierarchical style of leadership in which authority lines are clear and followers are given clear, specific directions. There’s great potential in matrix models for international growth and expansion. But a matrix model requires an additional level of cultural intelligence in order to effectively use it.
I’ve interacted with leaders at Google about this. Google has an extremely strong corporate culture and recruiters are given a clear standard of how to spot the Google DNA when searching for new Googlers. But the questions and techniques recruiters typically use to get a sense of a job candidate’s interests, personal accomplishments, and innovative ideas need to be significantly adapted based on the cultural background of the candidate. And the ability to find the right candidates who fit with the more matrixed structure of Google requires culturally intelligent recruiters.
Global leadership itself is not a myth. It is possible to lead effectively across multiple cultures. This is the very thing we’ve been studying in our research on cultural intelligence for the last couple of decades. We have growing evidence that a leader’s cultural intelligence predicts several important leadership outcomes. Effectively leading across various cultures is a capability that can be measured and improved. But it begins with a more thoughtful, situational understanding of leadership.
…This is an excerpt from the revised edition of Leading with Cultural Intelligence, releasing this week in stores everywhere. Read more about the book and download a sample chapter here.
 Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005).