Ask an Expert - September 2014

Q:  I am working with a U.S.-based multi-national client to develop leaders around the world, particularly in countries throughout Asia. In an effort to bring some degree of standardization to the enterprise’s leadership development approach, we are interested in learning more about what research has been done regarding differences related to national culture? 

A:  As countries throughout the Asian region have grown and developed in size and global influence, this is an area of the world that has attracted the attention of more and more research. There is now a substantial body of research that has examined how context (e.g., culture) influences leaders and followers. In fact, at a recent Western Academy of Management Conference I presented—along with my fellow researcher and colleague Arran Caza from Griffin University, Australia—findings from our most recent inquiry into the role national culture plays in both leader behaviors and the expectations of followers. 

Growing Together: Evidence of Convergence in American and Singaporean Sources of Satisfaction with Leaders reports on our research that used data from constituents (followers) in the U.S. and Singapore, using The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® as our model to examine the influence of both culture and globalization.  Our aim in this study was to test for evidence of convergence among leadership expectations caused by the globalization of business practice. In particular, we predicted that relatively inexperienced followers would hold expectations consistent with their cultural values, but that work experience would reduce these international differences. We tested these predictions using four groups of followers with contrasting work experience (based on age: 18-23 vs. 28-33) and national origin (U.S. vs. Singapore).

The results supported our predictions. The less experienced, younger followers had different expectations of their leaders, and those differences were consistent with the cultural values of their home nation. The two groups of more experienced individuals did not have different expectations. These findings extend our understanding of leadership in the global era, and have important implications.

Taken together, these findings suggest that while there is an emerging global consensus about what followers expect from leaders, it takes time for followers to adopt those expectations. We believe that this perspective offers a clear way to reconcile those studies claiming that culture powerfully influences leadership with those studies claiming that it does not. Both groups may be correct. And to integrate them, we need to take into account the process and time period in which globalization acts. Our data suggest that leaders may need to be most culturally adaptable when dealing with young or inexperienced followers. There appears to be relatively rapid convergence of expectations (i.e., approximately five years), but those formative years may represent an important leadership challenge.

Next month, I’ll be sharing with you another study that supports a “universal” perspective on the key behaviors of leaders, suggesting that how leaders behave makes more difference than where leaders are located (whether by country, nationality, industry, function, hierarchy, and the like). These results, I believe, will help to take our understanding of leadership in the global era even further.  So stay tuned, and check back next month for more.

Barry Posner is the Accolti Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, where he served as Dean for 12 years. Together with Jim Kouzes, he is author of The Leadership Challenge—now in its fifth edition—and over a thirty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development.

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