3 Leadership Traits of an Effective Cross-Cultural Leader

I’m on a blogging sabbatical to write my upcoming book. This is a guest post by my friend Christie Samson. Christie is an alumna from the renowned Pepperdine’s MSOD program. She is passionate about leadership development and building capacity in cross-cultural organizations. She leads strategy, program management, and training for SolarCity’s national recruiting programs team. She is the Founder and Principal Consultant at Capacity Inc. (www.CapacityInc.co) You can follow her on Twitter.

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Years ago I received an urgent call from a client, a CEO of a tech company.

“Christie, though the candidate is technically doing a good job, her accent is driving me nuts and I have a hard time understanding her. Please replace her immediately with someone else.”

My team could have easily replaced this great candidate with somebody else to fix the issue immediately, but replacing her with someone else would cost the company more time and money to train someone new.

I encouraged my client to give her one more chance. During a series of one-on-one meetings, I coached the candidate to speak clearly and slowly. I also coached the client to be culturally sensitive and aware about the communication differences. After a few weeks, both client and candidate were happily working together. The candidate turned out to be a long-term employee – someone who became a key contributing team member of the tech company.

Have you ever felt challenged working with someone who was different than you? Perhaps they were from another country, or even a different part of the country.

As the business world becomes increasingly global and flat, it’s important for leaders to work effectively in cross-cultural environments by becoming culturally aware, knowledgeable, and open-minded about how to effectively lead and inspire people across cultures.

Leaders Who Raise Awareness & Cultural Sensitivity

The first thing to remember is to become completely aware and mindful about cultural differences. What if the roles were completely reversed, and you were in the other person’s shoes – living in a new country and working with foreigners? Now throw being thousands of miles away from family, friends, and your comfort zone into the mix. This is exactly how many of your foreign co-workers feel when they live in your country.

By being culturally sensitive to the fact that your foreign co-workers moved far away from their homes to work in your country and for your company, it may help you become more understanding and patient in dealing with them. Try to be aware of the challenges they had to and continue to face on a daily basis.

Leaders Who Acquire Cultural Knowledge

Remember Heisman Trophy winner Mariota Marcus? Before he became a Quarterback in the NCAA League, many Division I coaches doubted Mariota’s leadership skills because he was not outspoken and aggressive. Instead, he carried himself humbly as an unassuming leader who credited others for his success, which happen to be leadership traits respected in Hawaiian culture.

Similarly in the working world, an American leader may be flabbergasted that an Asian employee did not negotiate. However, he may not realize that speaking up assertively and asking for more money is considered disobedient and disrespectful to authority in Asian culture.

And an easy-going Australian sales director who likes to joke around and tell long stories may be taken aback by how blunt and all about business their German clients are.  

A culturally knowledgeable leader understands that people from different parts of the world and even parts of the country possess unique characteristics and traits. A leader who embraces those differences and brings out the best in people regardless of their cultural backgrounds will know how to effectively lead and inspire others their organization.

 Leaders Who Open Doors with an Open Mind

 “Their culture is weird!”

“Well, things just aren’t handled that way in my country!”

Have you ever heard those words, or have those thoughts crossed your mind? Unfortunately we see leaders and managers who hire “Mini Me’s” and prefer to stay in the comfort zone working with people similar to themselves.

It’s important to remember that leadership is not only about opening doors and growing others. It’s also about keeping an open mind while opening doors and growing others.

Question: What are other leadership traits of an effective cross-cultural leader? Who was a leader that brought out the best in people working in cross-cultural environments? Share your experiences with others in the comments below.

  • I was thrust into cross-cultural leadership about 8 years ago when I became interim-director of a Bible institute in Ukraine immediately after moving around the world to Ukraine. Looking back on that time now, I can see a lot of mistakes I made because I didn’t correctly understand the culture.

    On the other hand there were a few things that really helped me survive. One was simply making the effort and taking the time to learn the language. People noticed that and they respected me for it and I believe it made them more willing to work with me.

    Another was taking as much time as possible to observe working relationships before suggesting change. One of the biggest mistakes in cross-cultural leadership is rushing things. You have to take much much more time to observe before making changes than you would in your own culture.

  • Great post, Christie. Empathy and patience are so crucial in leading across cultural barriers. It is so easy to interact with people who are like us. So easy in fact that we avoid relationships that take more work.

    I have found disagreement is often not the reason root of why cultures clash, rather lack of compassion for the way the opposite party feels. It takes a certain amount of humility to navigate intercultural interchanges. So I would say that “Humility” is another attribute of an effective leader.

  • Great piece. And love the closing quote especially.

    ‘It’s important to remember that leadership is not only about opening doors and growing others. It’s also about keeping an open mind while opening doors and growing others.’