Culture clearly plays a part in leadership and how it is expressed in different places.  People who live or move within different cultures encounter these differences and know they are real; the words to accurately describe or understand the differences, however, are often lacking.  We resort to general observations or broad-brush statements that are riddled with exceptions.

The experiences of leaders in different countries clearly shape them.  Two researchers looking at leaders in China, India and Singapore noted difference in challenging assignments, developmental relationships, dealing with hardships, education and personal experience.  All of these influences shape individuals into the leaders they are, and gaining an appreciation for each individual’s personal biography is insightful and essential for understanding their own expression of leadership with its gaps and its strong areas.

One way of understanding leadership differences is through behavior styles.  What we need is a fully descriptive, universal language for behavioral description, one that resists the bias of assigning “good” and “bad” labels to different ways that effective leaders get things done.  Two leaders, both equally effective, can take very different paths to arrive at similar results using different behavioral strategies.  Being able to describe those differences objectively, like a scientist, and avoiding personal biases allows us to expand our appreciation of different leaders and ultimately to develop more top talent for tomorrow’s leadership positions.

Research that I did with 1200 leaders in Asia led me to see clear behavior style preferences in different cultures.  In multinational companies (MNC’s), understanding these differences allows for context-specific leadership development as well as company-wide efforts to cultivate the next generation of top talent.

Some summary observations*

Leaders in India had a strong tendency to express dominance (direct, problem->solution orientation) in their leadership styles, especially in the business world.  In Korea, compliance-steadiness (detail-orientation, careful and analytical decision-making) were strong markers shared by many in the top levels of leadership.  In China, the preferred style for leaders were dominance, compliance (detail-oriented, analytical rules-based decision-making) and dominance-compliance (directness and high standards).  In these countries and across Asia there was a noticeable preference for a factual, objective approach to persuasion and motivation methods rather than extroverted, personal and humanistic approaches.

This research showed that cultural difference do indeed show up in self-expressed behavioral preferences by leaders.  However, within each culture there is still room for a diversity of styles and approaches even where one or a cluster of styles is preferred more often than others.  This has some implications for talent management and leadership development.

First, organizations have their own culture just as nations do.  Different MNC’s doing business in the same country or markets may have very different profiles or styles of leadership.  Sometimes, the preferred style imposes its own blinders on the rest of the culture.  When it comes to behavior style, diversity is a potential strength, but it must be acknowledged and managed or else decisions (and the culture) tend to reflect arbitrariness and chaotic tendencies.

Second, good talent management practices will not focus simply on “competency models” or modeling based on traits; it will be closely connected to business results, cultural awareness and experience-based learning and development.  The good news for talent management is that there are tools and proven precedents for defining what success looks like and what kind of leadership is desired for future growth; it is not simply about luck, intuition or other subjective biases.

Third, in terms of leadership development Asian leaders have historically valued a small number of close relationships and relied on personal experiences to guide them through difficult leadership trials and challenges.  A leadership style that projects personal warmth and charisma or inspiration more broadly (as North Americans are perceived to do) has not been part of their repertoire.  This is not a shortcoming or gap; it reflects preferences, comfort level and conditioning which is part of the culture.  More leadership development in Asia needs to be individualized and respect the high-context cultural reality, rather than importing Western models of executive education.


*The leadership and behavior styles mentioned here are based on the Marston behavioral tendencies model.  For more on this and the research results mentioned you may send me an email requesting more information:  ron(at)leadskill(dot)com or use the comments box below.

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