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How Cultural Factors Affect Leadership

Source | Knowledge@Wharton

No topic, probably, has been quite as exhaustively examined, studied, dissected, and discussed as leadership. But much of the focus has been on how American businesses define leadership. What works in U.S. based businesses may or may not work in business environments in other parts of the world. Robert J. House, director of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Program at the Wharton School, has spent the past ten years studying how different cultures throughout the world define leadership. He and his colleagues have found that definitions and perceptions of leadership vary considerably from culture to culture. In the global business world, organizations and executives face a growing need to understand the subtleties and nuances of leadership as it is exercised in different cultures.

In 1993 House launched The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Program (GLOBE) to test leadership hypotheses in various cultures. Over the past six years GLOBE has evolved into a multi-phase, multi-method research project in which some 170 investigators from over 60 cultures representing all major regions of the world collaborate to examine the interrelationships among societal culture, organizational culture and practices and organizational leadership. GLOBE has focused on universals and culture-based differences in perceived effectiveness of leadership attributes by asking middle managers whether certain leader characteristics and behaviors would help or hinder a person in becoming an outstanding leader.

GLOBE recently completed the second of four phases envisioned by House and his colleagues. Phase II found that there are universally endorsed leader attributes. In addition, the study also found that there are attributes that are universally seen as impediments to outstanding leadership. The most important finding, however, is that there are culturally-contingent attributes that can help or hinder leadership. What is seen as a strength in one culture may be a considerable impediment in another culture. These findings appear in a paper titled: “EMICs and ETICS of Culturally-Endorsed Implicit Leadership Theories: Are Attributes of Charismatic/ Transformational Leadership Universally Endorsed?”which is being published in 1999 in Leadership Quarterly.

Business is global, but each business organization has a culture shaped by the business it is in and the people who run the business. Executives are themselves products of the unique cultures in which they have learned and conducted business. To see how cultures might come into play, we can easily imagine a situation in which a British executive who was trained at an American business school is asked to run the Argentine manufacturing facility of a Japanese firm. What leadership attributes should this executive work to develop: Japanese? Argentine? American? British? This executive needs to understand the culture within which he works and how his employees perceive leadership. GLOBE has found that “one size does not fit all”. An executive needs to develop bespoke leadership attributes, tailored to the unique culture within which he or she works.

Read On….

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