Leadership within Different Cultures

Barry Posner

Q: Questions about cross-cultural differences among leaders arise frequently when working with my large global clients. I've mostly seen studies that speak to differences that may or may not be present between, say, leaders in the U.S. vs. Europe or other highly developed countries. But my clients are much more interested to learn about what has been done to study leadership within different cultures and, in particular, within developing world cultures.

A: This is an area of leadership study that is of special interest to me and my co-author, Jim Kouzes, and one that we are continuing to explore through various research projects. For example, a research paper titled The Impact of Leadership Practices Within Cultures describes a study I recently conducted that investigated the behaviors of leaders across economically-distressed regions within Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Philippines. The purpose was to understand whether the impact of the leaders' behavior would be differentially affected by culture, and the psychometric properties of the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) in this setting.

Our findings support the viewpoint that there are a set of leadership behaviors (in this study represented by The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®), which are both universal and culturally-specific. In addition, the project offers several practical implications that your clients may find of interest:

Leadership made a difference, regardless of culture / country. The more that leaders (self) reported engaging in The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® generally (and specifically Model The Way, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage The Heart) the more positive their attitudes toward work and their workplace.
Leadership also mattered for constituents. Constituents (observers) who reported their leaders as engaging most frequently in each of The Five Practices also provided significantly more favorable assessments of their leaders' effectiveness.
Neither gender nor age systematically affected the frequency to which leaders reported using any of The Five Practices.

While our findings support the explicit assumption that culture, as represented by national boundaries, will effect how leaders behave, the significance of this difference is minimized by the evidence showing that the impact of leadership behaviors is quite similar within each culture. For example, while a leader in Ethiopia might use a leadership practice less frequently than his or her counterpart in India, the affect this has on outcomes—e.g., engagement or positive work attitudes from a self-perspective, or effectiveness from an observer or constituent perspective—does not vary.

These findings suggest comparisons to others that show differences attributed to such "cultural" factors as:

functional area:
why the frequency of leadership behaviors for engineering managers differ from finance managers?
industry:
why the frequency of leadership behaviors of health care professionals differ from business executives or school principals?
organizational size:
why the frequency of leadership behaviors for managers from small firms, as measured by number of employees, differs from those of very large-sized companies?

These "cultural" differences are not as significant, in a practical sense, as those that show how engaging in various leadership behaviors, regardless of setting, impacts important organizational and interpersonal outcomes.

Overall, the findings from this latest research project strengthen the argument that there are some universal principles, or better yet, processes of leadership that are relatively independent of culture, albeit not necessarily independent of context.

Barry Posner is the Accolti Professor of Leadership at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business, where he served as Dean for 12 years. He has been a visiting professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Sabanci University (Istanbul), and the University of Western Australia. Together with Jim Kouzes, he is co-author of The Leadership Challenge and over a thirty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the recently released Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It.

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