A wonderful and wise mentor of mine defined a leader as “Someone who takes you where you haven’t been before”. His explanation added that, you’d been there before, you wouldn’t need a leader and if you didn’t want to go you wouldn’t go anyway. Academic research and corporate conversations have not bettered this for me – although the literature and lists of competencies use many more words.
As organisations find themselves in places where maps of past experience and cultural biases are not very helpful they need to think what that means for the leaders they want to appoint or develop.
Our own research with several major international organisations has revealed two factors or competencies that seemed to capture what they were looking for in the people who would be helping the organisation achieve its objectives in these “brave new worlds”.
The first requirement was described as cultural flexibility – able to recognise the differences in other cultures and adapt as necessary to work with those cultural norms and values. That does not mean simply doing it their way. As organisations have become more and more international and new markets and cultures have presented themselves the challenge is how to preserve your identity and be acceptable in the host nation or community. Even McDonalds, that golden symbol of US culture and values, had to agree to serve beer before they were allowed to open on the Champs Elysees.
Future leaders need to quickly see and understand the underlying assumptions about how the world works in a given community or culture and make a judgment call on how to work with this if it differs greatly from how their own organisation “does life”.
The second competency or factor was a proven ability to learn. This did not mean the number of letters appearing after the name or the number of exams passed in school. Interestingly it was more about being prepared to engage even though you might get it wrong and look stupid and to have the humility to ask when you didn’t understand yet be able to decide what’s right for yourself.
These two factors are, of course, connected. Cultural difference is not found in the Lonely Planet guide to a new country. The conversational skills we encourage our leaders and facilitators to build in the Nine Conversations in Leadership approach are built on this foundation. Stephen Covey said “Seek first to understand, then be understood” – so when we talk about conversations we have to help people understand this is not a PowerPoint presentation. If you want them to come along for the journey you need to understand what their expectations of things like leadership, teams and organisations are all about.
Our work with major international organisations in oil, pharmaceuticals, energy and publishing have often arrived at cultural crossroads and they have all recognised that their best leaders are those who can provide direction and navigate a course which addresses and resolves…