Research & Thought Leadership

How to Become an Intercultural Leader

Barbara Wang (PhD)

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How to become an intercultural leader

In the digital era of the 21st century, inevitably, the core competitive advantages of the global company are the echelon of talents coming from multicultural cultures. Moreover, in the post-pandemic world, the online business is part of the 'new normal' globalization, which means that work will increasingly be done by people from different nationalities, ethnicities, values and beliefs.

Edward Hall, the American anthropologist, said, "Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants", which is in the same vein of the saying of Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, "Water is the last thing a fish notices". Not surprisingly, "Culture "is the last thing humans notice.

It seems that "all roads lead to Rome", but every road is often a dead end. Therefore, leading across cultures is more critical and complex than ever. We are developed in our own 'Water', which contains different cultural substances. Westerners live in a world of Dichotomy, polarised and against contradictions; Easterners live in a world of Harmony, paradoxical, integrated, holistic and full of contradiction. Whether to follow the traditional western way or explore another track depends on how culturally agile business leaders can be to learn the best practice from Western and Eastern philosophies.

Therefore, to attract and retain the talents for sustainable growth in today's multicultural world, leaders must strive to improve cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity in the workplace, build multicultural teams and develop intercultural capability. Intercultural leadership is essential for cultivating the 'water' of diversity and inclusion.

What is Intercultural Leadership?

As the definition of leadership, there is no one definition for Intercultural Leadership. Paula Schriefer distinctly summarised the difference between multicultural, intercultural, and cross-cultural communication, "Multicultural refers to a society containing several cultural or ethnic groups. People live alongside one another, but each cultural group does not necessarily have engaging interactions. Cross-cultural deals with the comparison of different cultures, one culture is often considered 'the norm', and all other cultures are compared or contrasted to the dominant culture. Intercultural describes communities in which there is a deep understanding and respect for all cultures, and no one is left unchanged because everyone learns from one another and grows together."

Within this context, Intercultural Leadership is the ability to influence and engage followers from all cultures. Undoubtedly, to enable high-performance multicultural teams, leaders need to take teams through three stages of cultural change- 1) cross-cultural, 2) multicultural, 3) intercultural.

How to become an Intercultural Leader?

Becoming an intercultural leader begins with increasing self-awareness of cultural intelligence (CQ) and cultural profile (CP). People with high CQ can learn from interaction with others, seek and develop ways of understanding, and respond to those around them.

Christopher Earley and Soon Ang identified three features of a person's CQ-

  1. Cognition: "Do I know what is happening?" Understanding that cultural differences are happening in a given situation;

  2. Motivation: "Am I motivated to act?" Being prepared to relate and deal with people despite the difficulties imposed by cultural differences;

  3. Behaviour: "Can I respond appropriately and effectively?" Learning how to connect and attend to people across cultures.

Richard Lewis developed a model of Cultural Profile to classify individual cultures into three main groups:

  1. Linear-active culture, a culture whose people are task-oriented, highly-organized planners, preferring to do one thing at a time in the sequence shown in their diary;

  2. Multi-active culture, an extrovert, people-oriented culture whose members tend to do many things at once, often in an unplanned order;

  3. Reactive culture, an introverted, respect-oriented culture whose people are reluctant to initiate firm action or opinionated discussion, preferring to listen to and establish the other's position, then react to it and formulate their own.

Understanding CQ and CP prepare leaders to be more flexible and adaptable when encountering a new culture and then lead a multicultural team smoothly.

Given that there are unlimited areas of cultural misunderstanding, any behaviour you can think of in one culture will be different in meaning or context somewhere else in the world. Leaders need to take actions on the development of the following mindset and behaviours among team members;

  • Be careful with our generalizations about culture

  • Recognize that stereotypical thinking is one way to make sense of the world

  • Compare other cultures and not judge them

  • Give each other descriptive feedback, which means specific information about what needs to do

  • Understand each other clearly who you are about personal values and preference

  • Clarify the norm about what you should do

  • State objectives and roles very clearly

  • Define them in ways that mean something to everyone

  • Use diversity as an asset

According to Edgar Schein, a renowned scholar in organizational Culture, Culture is a powerful force; if we do not manage culture, then culture manages us. Whether you like it or not, the world is becoming more global, requiring all leaders to understand, adapt, survive and thrive by improving intercultural leadership skills.

Barbara Wang

Professor of Leadership and Management

Barbara Wang is a Professor of Leadership and Management at Hult International Business School. Her research interests are cross-cultural leadership & management. She has designed and delivered leadership development programs for multinational companies such as ABB, Volvo, Philips, Continental, Sinopec, China Post, Bank of China, and Air China.

Prior to joining Ashridge in 2005 then Hult, Barbara was a Vice President for the Western Management Institute of Beijing. Her commercial experience extends to working for multinational companies in China where she was the Retail Operations Director for Louis Vuitton group and the Global Accounts Director for DHL.

Barbara holds a BA, an MBA, a PhD, and she is qualified in many leadership psychometric instruments. Barbara’s primary publication includes the book Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and Chinese Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

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Barbara Wang

Barbara Wang is a Professor of Leadership and Management at Hult International Business School. Her research interests are cross-cultural leadership & management. She has designed and delivered leadership development programs for multinational companies such as ABB, Volvo, Philips, Continental, Sinopec, China Post, Bank of China, and Air China. Prior to joining Ashridge in 2005 then Hult, Barbara was a Vice President for the Western Management Institute of Beijing. Her commercial experience extends to working for multinational companies in China where she was the Retail Operations Director for Louis Vuitton group and the Global Accounts Director for DHL. Barbara holds a BA, an MBA, a PhD, and she is qualified in many leadership psychometric instruments. Barbara’s primary publication includes the book Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and Chinese Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

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