Cross-cultural leadership

Cross-cultural psychology attempts to understand how individuals of different cultures interact with each other (Abbe et al., 2007). Along these lines, cross-cultural leadership has developed as a way to understand leaders who work in the newly globalized market. Today’s international organizations require leaders who can adjust to different environments quickly and work with partners and employees of other cultures (House et al., 2001). It cannot be assumed that a manager who is successful in one country will be successful in another (Javidan et al., 2006; Brodbeck et al., 2000).

The following sections discuss the various aspects of cross-cultural leadership including: related theories and research, definitions of the construct itself and characteristics that are exhibited from such leaders, and antecedents to and implications of being a cross-cultural leader.

Related Theories and Research

Implicit Leadership Theory

The Implicit Leadership Theory (ILT) asserts that people’s underlying assumptions, stereotypes, beliefs and schemas influence the extent to which they view someone as a good leader. Since people across cultures tend to hold different implicit beliefs, schemas and stereotypes, it would seem only natural that their underlying beliefs in what makes a good leader differ across cultures (Javidan et al., 2006; Brodbeck et al., 2000).

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

One of the most prominent and influential studies to date regarding leadership in a globalized world is the Hofstede dimensions of culture. The study reveals similarities as well as differences across cultures and emphasizes the need to be open-minded to understand the differences in other cultures. Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) utilize five dimensions of culture to compare cultures to give leaders an understanding of how to adjust their leadership styles accordingly. These dimensions include Individualism/Collectivism, Feminine/Masculine, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Long Term/ Short Term orientation.


The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Project (GLOBE) study incorporated both the ILT and Hofstede's dimensions into one unique research study. The GLOBE study extended the ILT to include individuals of a common culture maintaining a relatively stable common belief about leaders, which varies from culture to culture. They labeled this the Culturally Endorsed Implicit Leadership Theory (CLT) (Javidan et al., 2006). The GLOBE study came up with the nine dimensions of Uncertainty Avoidance, Power Distance, Collectivism I: Societal Collectivism, Collectivism II: In-Group Collectivism, Gender Egalitarianism, Assertiveness, Future Orientation, Performance Orientation and Humane Orientation (House, Javidan, &Dorfman, 2001). Some of those dimensions correlate with the respective dimension from Hofstede. However, they differ since the GLOBE dimensions distinguish between cultural values and cultural practices, as opposed to Hofstede.

Leadership Styles Across Cultures

Leadership is a universal phenomenon (Bass, 1997). That is, wherever there are people, there are leaders. The question here is not whether leadership exists across cultures, but do various leadership styles (paternalistic leadership, transformational leadership, transactional leadership) translate across cultures?

Paternalistic Leadership

Paternalistic leadership “combines strong discipline and authority with fatherly benevolence and moral integrity couched in a ‘personalistic’ atmosphere” (Farh & Cheng, 2000, p. 94). Paternalistic leadership is composed of three main elements: authoritarianism, benevolence, and moral leadership (Farh & Cheng). At its roots, paternalistic leadership refers to a hierarchical relationship in which the leader takes personal interest in the workers’ professional and personal lives in a manner resembling a parent, and expects loyalty and respect in return (Gelfand, Erez, & Aycan, 2007).

A great deal of research has been conducted on the prevalence of this leadership style in non-Western business organizations, indicating the prevalence of paternalistic leadership in countries like main land China and Taiwan (Pellegrini & Scandura, 2008). However, considerably less research has been done on whether paternalistic leadership exists in Western cultures. Recently, there has been an increase in the amount of attention placed on paternalistic leadership in non-Western cultures. Although it is a relatively new area of focus in leadership research, evidence has been found supporting the relationship between paternalism and positive work attitudes in numerous cultures, including the Middle East, Latin America, and Pacific Asia (Pellegrini & Scandura, 2008). In a recent study, Pellegrini, Scandura, and Jayaraman (2010) examined paternalism in the Western business context and found that paternalistic leadership was positively associated with job satisfaction in India, but not in the United States. In both Indian and United States cultures, paternalistic leadership was positively related to leader-member exchange and organizational commitment (Pellegrini, Scandura & Jayaraman, 2010). Based on recent cross-cultural studies, paternalistic leadership seems to be more apparent across cultures than previously believed. Further research is needed to explore how prevalent it is, and how individual characteristics may play a role in where paternalistic leadership is found.

Transformational & Transactional Leadership

In addition to paternalistic leadership, other well-known leadership styles include transformational and transactional leadership. Transformational leadership is loosely defined as a charismatic leadership style that rallies subordinates around a common goal with enthusiasm and support. Transactional leadership is characterized by a give and take relationship using rewards as an incentive. These concepts were introduced by Bass (1985) and have been updated and studied throughout the years, claiming the transferability of these types of leadership styles across cultures. In fact, Bass and Avolio (1994) went as far as to give an optimal leadership profile for leaders around the world.

Shahin and Wright (2004) decided to test this theory in Egypt, an emerging market that had yet to be studied. In a questionnaire study of employees at 10 different banks, responses indicated that only 3 of the 7 factors that were found in the ideal leadership style in Egypt corresponded with the US factors. The other 4 were unique to Egypt or perhaps the Middle East in general. These results indicate an inability to assume that transactional and transformational leadership will succeed in non-western cultures. Casimir, Waldman, Bartram, and Yang (2006) similarly found that these leadership styles may not be as universal as some assume. In a study of transactional and transformational leadership in China and Australia, results indicated that transformational leadership significantly predicted performance and trust in the Australian population, while only predicting trust, and not performance in the Chinese population. Transactional leadership did not predict trust or performance in either population. This is another indication that these theories may not be as universal as proposed.

In opposition to the above findings, Walumbwa, Lawler, and Avolio (2007) compared data from China, India, Kenya, and the U.S. and found a strong presence of transformational and/or transactional leadership in these countries. Allocentrists, similar to collectivists, respond more positively to transformational leadership because they unite individuals around a common goal. Idiocentrists, essentially individuals found in individualistic cultures, are more amenable to transactional leaders who reward individuals for hard work and success and less amenable to leaders who encourage group work and reduce individual identity. Although these leadership styles are not appropriate in every country, this study shows that as long as the appropriate style of leadership (either transactional or transformational) is used in the correct country, followers will respond positively. Further studies should be conducted for consensus.


Organizational leadership and culture

In the leadership literature, there is a lack of consensus over how to define and refer to cross-cultural leadership. In the GLOBE study, researchers don’t specifically define cross-cultural leadership; rather they outline it in two components; organizational leadership and culture. The authors describe organizational leadership as “the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members” (House et al., p. 494). The authors note that there is no universal definition for culture, but GLOBE’s definition includes “shared motives, values, beliefs, identities, and interpretations or meanings of significant events that result from common experiences of members of collectives and are transmitted across age generations” (House et al., p. 494-495).

International executive

Another term for a cross-cultural leader, as used by Spreitzer, McCall Jr., and Mahoney (1997), is international executive. They define an international executive as “an executive who is in a job with some international scope, whether in an expatriate assignment or in a job dealing with international issues more generally” (p. 7).

Global Leadership

Osland, Bird, Mendenhall, and Osland, (2006) define global leadership as “a process of influencing the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors of a global community to work together synergistically toward a common vision and common goals” (p. 204). In 2002 these authors conducted another study which found six core dimensions of competencies of a global leader: cross-cultural relationship skills, traits and values, cognitive orientation, global business expertise, global organizing expertise and visioning.

As you can see, there is not one right way to define and refer to a cross-cultural leader. What is important to note is that these various terms and definitions have a similar underlying meaning. Whichever term you use, the underlying theme is that cross-cultural leadership involves the ability to influence and motivate people’s attitudes and behaviors in the global community to reach a common organizational goal.


As the previous section demonstrates, researchers use many terms to refer to the construct of cross-cultural leadership. Although these terms may differ slightly, it is important to be able to operationalize, or define cross-cultural leadership in a way that allows its presence or absence to be measured. The following studies discuss the knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors that are exhibited by successful cross-cultural leaders.

In researching the international executive, Spreitzer et al. (1997) found that general intelligence, business knowledge, interpersonal skills, commitment, courage and ease in dealing with cross-cultural issues are traits that seem to resonate throughout the literature in illustrating a successful international executive. They indicated a lack of academic research predictors of “international executive” success, but agree that open personality, flexibility, drive and language skills all contribute to a successful international executive.

Rather than delineating a term for the leader, Rentsch, Mot, and Abbe (2009) describe a specific trait that is attributed to multicultural leadership known as multicultural perspective taking. This is detailed as the ability of such leaders to “take the perspective of another within the cultural context, to apply cultural lenses, and to adapt quickly when encountering individuals or groups from unfamiliar cultures” (p. 1).

Gelfand, Erez, and Aycan (2007) interpret the overall behaviors that a cross-cultural leader should embody as cross-cultural organizational behavior (OB). This is defined as “cross-cultural similarities and differences in processes and behaviors at work, and the dynamics of cross-cultural interfaces in multicultural domestic and international contexts” (p. 480).

Johnson, Lenartowicz, and Apud (2006) discuss such behavior using a similar construct referred to as cross-cultural competence (CC). CC in international business refers to “an individual’s effectiveness in drawing upon a set of knowledge, skills, and personal attributes in order to work successfully with people from different national cultural backgrounds at home or abroad” (p. 530). The focus here is not on acquiring knowledge, but rather on how the individual uses knowledge he/she already has acquired. International business can be tough and trying but it is the extent to which a leader can persevere and utilize the knowledge he/she has that makes him/her successful.

In a similar study conducted by Abbe, et al. (2007), this same concept of cross-cultural competence (here referred to as 3C), was found to enable leaders to interact in any culture, as opposed to language and regional knowledge, which only work in specific cultures. 3C, as researched by Abbe et al. (2007), is dynamic and subject to develop over time. The authors established three components of cross-cultural competence, which include knowledge and cognition, cultural awareness, cross-cultural schema and cognitive complexity. Abbe et al. (2007) found that a leader will be successful working in another culture if personal, work, and interpersonal domains are met.

As the previously discussed studies demonstrate, there are many characteristics and behaviors that lead someone to be an effective cross-cultural leader, be it general cognitive ability, interpersonal skills, cultural awareness, or multicultural perspective taking. What is important to note is that encompassing one of these traits independently does not guarantee you will be a successful cross-cultural leader. An effective cross-cultural leader must have a well-rounded skill set and understanding of the differences that exist among people from different backgrounds.implementation


In today’s world, the business market extends beyond the local shops in front of your house, beyond your neighborhood, beyond your state, even beyond your country. With the emergence of technologies such as the Internet and text messaging, the global market is at everyone’s fingertips. More recently, international trade has grown due to “the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the creation of a single Europe, the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) …a single European currency…and the emergence of the US from an economic recession” (Johnson, et al. 2006, p. 525). The world now consists of jetsetters and Fortune 500 companies, military and government services, and developmental organizations that extend into multiple regions of the world.

The studies conducted to develop these cultural variables attempted to understand the cultural differences and predict an overall impact on leadership. In order to achieve this perspective on culture and notice the similarities and differences, one needs to first understand one’s own culture to relate and compare it to others (Gelfand et al., 2007; Javidan et al., 2006). The larger the gap between these cultures, the more difficult it will be for the leader to adapt (Yamazaki & Kayes, 2004).

According to Gelfand, et al. (2007) globalization is “the economic interdependence among countries that develops through cross-national flows of goods, services, capital, knowhow, and people” (p. 481). Osland, et al. (2006) claim that the term global refers to more than just geographic location but rather it encompasses cultural and intellectual reach which deals with business operations, people, and the development of a global frame of mind. With a greater understanding of globalization and global organizations, we can now move on to its effects on leadership within these organizations.

Implications for practice

Implications of this need for cross-cultural leaders can be seen in the human resource departments within these global organizations. There is a strong agreement across the literature that the selection process plays a key role in hiring the people who will be most effective cross-cultural leaders. The articles detail specific personality traits and individual differences that promote quality cross-cultural leadership for multicultural settings. They also all emphasize across the board the need to hire individuals who already have prior extensive international experience, beyond vacationing in a given country. (Abbe et al. 2007; Johnson et al., 2006; Kealey & Protheroe, 1996; Mintzberg & Gossling, 2002; Osland et al. 2006; Spreitzer et al. 1997; Yamazaki & Kayes, 2004)

Additionally, there have been many studies published regarding the effect of intercultural training on expatriate success. While some disagree and question the effectiveness of training, most authors indicate that there is some, if only minor, success factor in intercultural training. There is no disagreement about the need for intercultural sensitivities and communication skills; it is the process of attaining these skills that is in question (Spreitzer, McCall Jr., & Mahoney, 1997; Mintzberg & Gosling, 2002; Hechanova et al., 2003; Kealey and Protheroe, 1996).

Spreitzer, McCall Jr., Mahoney (1997) believe that executives attain these skills through continuous learning, and an array of differentiated projects and experiences which all lead to an accumulated knowledge. Mintzberg and Gosling (2002) agree that executives learn through experience and note that they get to their level because of those experiences. They add that it would be detrimental to the executives to remove them from their experiential learning to sit them in a classroom and instead encourage a learning technique that incorporates classroom learning during short breaks from their job, roughly two weeks of every sixteen months. Hechanova et al. (2003) add that in effective cross-cultural training that is provided by many organizations is actually more detrimental than none at all.

According to Kealey and Protheroe (1996), the three most important ingredients to successful work overseas include the aptitudes and motivations of the expatriate and his immediate family, the aptitudes and motivation of the local counterparts and the overall organization of the project (p. 144). Therefore, while training is important, only a piece of one of the three aspects, expatriate’s personal aptitudes, can be altered by training. In addition, there needs to be recognition that training is meant to enhance abilities that are already there. Leaders need to come into training courses with abilities of their own and be open to alteration and growth from the training program.


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    See also

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