Becoming Culturally Intelligent...An Essential Tool for Leadership

Becoming Culturally Intelligent...An Essential Tool for Leadership

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Using cultural knowledge to grow your leadership skils #CSR,
Friday, April 2, 2010 - 11:07am


This is the third and final instalment focusing on lessons learned in the small town of Nebaj, Guatemala that pertain to global issues of CSR, Leadership and Community Development – the three core elements of The Acacia Group.   

The Acacia Group’s value proposition is to engage leaders in a cross cultural experience that will expand their knowledge of themselves and others and thereby influence and enhance their leadership styles and their global awareness. David G. Thomas and Kerr Inkson in their book “Cultural Intelligence” define this capacity as “...understanding the fundamentals of intercultural interaction, developing a mindful approach to intercultural interactions, and finally building adaptive skills and a repertoire of behaviours so that one is effective in different intercultural situations”.   Even more importantly it is to build nimble learners who can observe and understand cultural meanings and who use that understanding as a basis for collective action. Capacities that we believe are equally important at home.
One of the Acacia Group’s host communities is Nebaj Guatemala. Nebaj is in the north central region of Guatemala and is populated by the Ixil. The Ixil are Mayan and their culture predates the Spanish influence in Central America. The economy is agriculturally based and, as you can probably imagine, their culture is quite different from our North American reality. Geert Hofstede a researcher who conducted a well known study in the early 80’s looked at over 50 countries across four dimensions. These dimensions were power distance, individualism, masculinity, and uncertainty avoidance. Let’s just look at one of the dimensions...individualism. Canada’s score for individualism on this survey was 80 out of 100. Guatemala’s was 6 out of 100 (the lowest score of all 50 countries). What does this mean? An individualistic culture such as Canada is more likely to be concerned about the consequences of an action on the individual, rather than others. They engage in activities that are conducted on their own or in small groups such as families. Decisions are made according to the judgement of the individual.   In a highly collectivistic culture such as Guatemala people primarily view themselves as members of groups and collectives. They are concerned about the impact of their actions on the group and decisions are made in a collective or consultative way.  James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster, Avatar, portrays this individual/collectivist clash vividly. Whether you found the plot line to be profoundly moving or just plain thing is clear, the American’s were determined to mine the resource rich Pandora for the monetary gain of individuals, while the Na’vi were equally determined to preserve their culture and belief system. The clash was “titanic” if you’ll pardon the pun...
The Acacia Group believes that rather than the either/or proposition illustrated by Avatar there is a both/and solution that is greater than what either group could achieve on their own. There are multiple opportunities to be explored in both paradigms...the individualist and the collectivist. It isn’t that one is better or worse than the other, it is that they are different. And because they are different we need to learn to be mindful and respectful, to pay attention, and to learn. Learning, itself, increases our capacity to acquire and productively apply new knowledge and skills.  Our cross cultural leadership experience begins with a carefully crafted learning plan because we believe that the transformational learning that happens in communities like Nebaj enables leaders to make wise choices about the world around them. It is this kind of learning that is a sustainable, renewable, lifelong process for people and the organizations and communities they serve.   Dr. Nancy J. Adler, Professor of International Management at McGill University suggests that, “There is no time in history when the need for cross-cultural skills has been more critical, cultural intelligence, therefore, could not be more relevant. Not only does it help leaders understand the world’s people better, it coaches all of us on how to live and work more effectively in a world economy that no longer recognizes nor understands borders.”


Dave Harrhy
The Acacia Group
@dharrhy - twitter