Navigating Universal and Unique Leadership Styles


As weak as the leadership pipeline is in many organizations, it is likely to be even weaker when it comes to specifically developing global leadership capabilities. But because being able to lead across global platforms is critical for the evolution, sustainability and success of international business and academic ventures, organizations need to understand how to develop and nurture global leadership capabilities.

There has been a good deal of research on this subject, most notably by House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman and Gupta, with their GLOBE Studies; by Kouzes and Posner with their longitudinal global leadership research; and by Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee on emotional and social intelligence.  

The GLOBE Study uncovers universal leadership characteristics as well as culturally determined clusters of leadership styles. While the universal characteristics are equally important leadership attributes across cultures, the expression of these attributes, and the importance given to them, differ depending on the cultural and social context. Some culturally universal leadership attributes are: trustworthiness, honesty, intelligence and decisiveness; being encouraging, positive and dynamic; and having bargaining, problem-solving and administrative skills.

On the other hand, culturally determined leadership styles vary considerably among cultures, with many instances of two separate cultures espousing completely opposite values as core leadership principles. Culturally determined leadership styles include being ambitious, subdued, cautious, compassionate, domineering, independent, compassionate and cunning.

Global leaders can do well by keeping the universal leadership attributes in mind. But when it comes to the culturally determined attributes, there is enough variation to create large gaps. For example, imagine a leader from a culture that values a domineering approach, who makes a pitch to a company in a culture that values caution. This “domineering” leader could leave the impression that they were reckless. If, however, this leader does their due diligence and spots the potential cultural gap, and then style switches to bridge it, they could create a synergy and make a successful pitch.

Because culturally determined leadership styles vary so widely, it takes a truly global leader to be able to adapt their behavior, communication style and deliverables to the cultural norms of their international partners and clients. This is why companies that wish to have a strong international presence must include cultural competence in their leadership development plans.