Each year, the Oxford English dictionary reveals its word of the year – 2020 was such an unprecedented year, that one just wasn’t enough. Sometimes it seems that experts assign leadership styles on a similar basis – it can often appear a new style is the one and only successful approach to leading organizations… until next year.
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Culture and Leadership Styles
The Institute for Management Development has tried to categorize all these approaches into five broad areas:
Leaders have a wealth of options to choose the right approach to take their organization forward building sustainable growth – or do they? We know that leadership is a product of culture – culture is made up of all the influences, experiences and experiences that a person has had over the course of a lifetime. Culture determines our default reactions and how we interact with other people.
We encourage leaders to do endless assessments to understand their leadership style and qualities; but we are much less likely to ask those who are led what they expect from a leader. And again, we are back to culture. The reason there are so many different ‘best’ leadership styles, is precisely because culture determines our expectations of leaders. If our cultures are different, we will need different things from our leaders.
In business, unlike the medieval feudal ages, leadership is by consensus. I can’t compel others to do what I need them to do; I can’t use fear or physical threat to get what I need. Leadership is a negotiation and agreement. If the leader doesn’t meet my needs or expectations, I have a lot of choices from passive resistance to leaving the organization to find a leader that does.
Our cultural lens is made up of three elements:
- Relating – how we interact with others
- Regulating – how we manage work with others
- Reasoning – how we think about problems and present solutions
Each of the people we lead will have their own cultural approach and expectations for each of these three elements and they can make a fundamental difference they perceive their leaders.
The Cultural Lens of Leadership
A leader must identify the level of involvement their team requires in the work and lives of their teams. The task-relationship balance is a tricky one to manage – ensuring that your direct reports feel valued may mean spending time getting to know each other or it may mean allowing them to focus on their work tasks.
Similarly, a leader must quickly identify how explicit they need to be in setting tasks. Too direct and they come across as rude, untrusting and dispassionate; too indirect and not only will things not get done but the leader may also be seen as weak.
Understanding how the group dynamics work is complicated by culture – not everyone will naturally need to feel part of a team and may work more individually; but those who are more group-oriented will function best around others. Managing that balance may well determine the success or failure of a project.
Managing the levels of risk and attitudes to power can ensure that tasks are completed effectively and to the standard you need. People who are risk-taking may produce quick work but take shortcuts to get there – risk-avoiders may never get close to finishing as they try to cover all bases.
Identifying who in your team expects their leader to share power and delegate authority as well as tasks is an important stage to establishing your credibility and leadership style. Delegating to those who expect power to be concentrated in you will cause confusion and reduce your team’s ability to function.
Tight and loose attitudes to time are easy to recognize and require active management. In post-pandemic management, flexibility is the norm and there may be room to accommodate both ends of this cultural dimension. However, you may need to state that flexibility explicitly to allow those with a tight preference to time to feel comfortable. Flexibility probably won’t apply to deadlines, so you will need to find how to ensure meetings and tasks start and finish on time.
If there is an easy culture to change, it would probably be the reasoning elements. They involve active thinking processes and so are more conscious than regulating and relating.
However, there is greater potential for conflict.
Linear vs circular thinking puts breaking down a problem into individual elements in opposition to dealing with the bigger picture as a whole; facts vs thinking is the ultimate contest of logic and instinct; and simple vs complex pits conciseness with thoroughness. A leader needs not only to recognize the preferences of team members, but also help them respect and value other approaches. The leader may feel like a mediator rather than inspiration.
Adaptive Leadership Strategies – ABCDE
The purpose of leadership is to enable a group to achieve more together than they could as individuals. That means a leader must facilitate the diverse cultural individuals they have, while balancing their own cultural tendencies.
First and foremost, the leader must learn to recognize these cultural traits; only then can they create an intentional, inclusive culture that takes advantage of the benefits of cognitive diversity. But a leader who can manage cultural difference effectively will grow in credibility and effectiveness in measurable ways: productivity will increase, staff attrition will reduce, and engagement will soar.
Rather than selecting a leadership style for the year, a truly culturally intelligent leader recognizes that each approach not only has a time and place, but also has an audience. Leaders have the unenviable task of balancing a set of diametrically opposed cultural tendencies, they need to find a consistent, inclusive and authentic approach that balances those differing needs – and at the same time, meet organizational and personal objectives.
That’s why leaders need adaptive strategies:
- Adapt – the leader adapts to the needs of the individuals
- Blend – a compromise where all move towards the center
- Co-create – the leader facilitates the creation of a shared explicit culture
- Divide – ignore the differences and accept the resulting confusion as the cost of doing business
- Enforce – the leader lays down the law and dictates the team culture
There is no right answer; nor is there an answer that will be right for ever. Leaders must develop the wisdom and insight not only to choose the right approach, but also to recognize when it’s time to change the approach.
WRITTEN BY MATTHEW MACLACHLAN
Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.
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