Recently I participated in a conversation with a colleague on the other side of the globe. While our focus was specifically on the nature of self-leadership what emerged was an important discussion on culture. What I am learning is that culture is important. I was raised in a culturally diverse community and attended school with a mixture of cultural influences around me. Having grown up in South Florida I rarely considered culture as it seemed natural to me to be immersed in so many cultural differences.
However, culture is an important aspect of what we do. If we look to the Western influence, we note that leadership focuses mainly on performance. Conversely, if we look to Eastern Asia we find a different reality in that leadership qualities are not so much utilitarian. The larger question remains, as the world embraces a global perspective, how will organizations best meet the challenges of the heterogeneity of many cultures. While I would prefer to see the world as beige, (all the same) we must accept that cultures do in fact create their own ‘configurations of motivations and incentives’. What we learn is that cultures organize around deeply rooted assumptions and values, which individuals take with them into all aspects of their life. These assumptions and values will influence workplace attitudes and behaviors. When a member of a culture feels threatened by change, they will revert to their values and cultural norms in an effort to protect the culture from a pending change.
Taking it one step further, strategic thinking must take into account cultural differences. While strategic thinking is applicable to all countries and cultures, one should understand the importance of religious, ethnic and even nationalist movements. We cannot underestimate the impact of such things as the standards of living, patriotism or religious factors as we develop understanding of cultural differences. Typically, we as leaders are blinded to the external conditions of the world around us and we respond in terms of our own cultural lens. In other words, we stick to what we know and attempt to impose it on others.
While I agree, we are all members of the human race; all residence of this beautiful blue ball we call Earth we must learn to overcome the tribal/cultural relativism that is rooted deep within us from birth. Unfortunately this is not that easy. So rather than trying to create a one-size-fits-all universe, we must learn to cohabitate with other cultures; learning how to work with each other to progress a common and agreed upon set of goals and objects.
As leaders, all we can do is continue to learn and understand cultural differences as we lead our organizations. While I still hope for the day of beige organizations when it comes to cultural differences; I realize this utopic view is limiting and not very practical.