The Challenges of Intercultural Leadership

- Watching Out for Blindspots
May 11, 2010 10:00 AM ET

The Acacia Group - Socially Responsible Leadership

Cross-cultural, multicultural, intercultural...these terms are often used interchangeably yet have finely nuanced distinctions. For a leader, the cross cultural context means literally crossing cultures to do business, provide service, or vacation in another culture. Multicultural refers to multiple cultures existing in a geographic place or organization, each separate and distinct. Intercultural refers to the act of understanding the values and beliefs of a culture and being able to communicate and collaborate with people across multiple cultures. Interculturalism has as its goal innovation, inclusion, and friendship. Intercultural ism implies interaction.

Milton Bennett, an interculturalist and the founder of the Intercultural Communication Institute in Portland, Oregon suggests the following definition for “Interculturalism”. It is “the learned and shared values, beliefs, and behaviours, of a group of interacting people”. There are at least two key ideas embedded in this definition. One is the notion that with enough curiosity and respect we can come to share values and beliefs and the second is that real understanding between people has to come from mutual interaction. The positive spinoffs to this approach are manifold. The act of valuing differences rather than imposing your own norms, values, and beliefs, applies to all, professional, corporate, and perhaps best of all, families.    It seems to me that many organizations believe that a “global” perspective on leadership will simply emerge as a leader interacts with diverse cultures. This is unlikely to happen. Our own western culture values and recognizes certain kinds of behaviours. As leaders grow within an organization they quickly discover what gets recognized and therefore rewarded. We place a high premium on “getting it done”, on production, and timeliness. Someone who can bring a project in “on time and on (or under) budget” is likely to be highly sought after. Yet these valuable skills may be at odds with another cultures respect for relationship and collective decision-making. The challenge in becoming truly intercultural is raising our awareness of how and why we do, say, react and respond in the ways in which we do. It requires a high level of curiosity aimed not only at another culture but at our own.     My own curiosity is piqued when I see the preponderance of leadership books, articles, and blogs with diversity or multicultural leadership as their subject. My lived experience tells me that few of us actually know how to enact these competencies. What prevents us from seeing our own way of being in the world? Is it system blindness, cultural blindness, personal blindness? Is it because our systems don’t recognize and reward curious, reflective, experimental behaviour? What’s more rewarding the path of greatest or least resistance? Let me know when you figure it out...I’m curious.      This blog was written by Christine Bonney, Managing Partner at The Acacia Group, Responsible for Leadership and Coaching.   ACACIA6654