Cultural Influences on Leadership

By | January 7, 2014

[January 07, 2014]  There is no person who is unaware that culture influences leadership and the outcome of the mission.  Those influences affect leadership in powerful ways and often in ways we do not readily see.  In the context of outstanding leadership, awareness of those dimensions of influence can be helpful.

For a leader, having knowledge of and how they react to the dimensions of culture is important for superior performance.  Anyone who has worked in different cultures knows that these can affect the way we do business.  The dimensions are:

  • Individualism: the social emphasis on individual versus collective achievement.
  • Power Distance: the social distance between people in the layers of their society.
  • Tolerance to Change: a measure of how society readily accepts change.

These factors will also influence leadership techniques, how leaders themselves are perceived and followed, and how organizational tasks are carried out.  Failure to recognize the cultural influences and take them into account can lead to a mild embarrassment or to a deadly circumstances.

For example, between 1970 and 1999, Korean airlines had a number of accidents that killed over 700 people.  After extensive study several reasons were determined to be factors, one being the power distance between pilot and co-pilot.  One newspaper article wass on target when it noted that in a few cases pilots ignored co-pilot warnings that turned deadly:

“… most of its pilots were Korean Air Force veterans with a strong authoritarian streak.  Senior pilots tended to ignore warnings or advice from copilots, especially those who had been their subordinates in the air force, and junior pilots were discouraged from speaking up.” – New York Times1

Awareness is the name of the game for successful leaders.  Communication is the key, in particular to overcoming problems across cultures where miscommunication is more likely to occur.

Leaders who engage leaders from other organizations or countries must be keenly aware of the unknowns bound to those cultures.  Misunderstandings and assumptions may lead to unpleasant circumstances that could be avoided.

When senior leaders are involved in misunderstanding cultural influences on leadership, the costs in terms of dollars and lives will be more evident.  Reducing preventable risks is important for leaders and understanding cultural influences on leadership is one significant way to do this.

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[1]  New Standards Mean Korean Air Is Coming Off Many ‘Shun’ Lists, by Don Kirk, the New York Times, Published: March 26, 2002 (can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/26/business/new-standards-mean-korean-air-is-coming-off-many-shun-lists.html)

 

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.