Successful leaders, it’s commonly acknowledged, share certain core characteristics and competences. You don’t get very far in business without, for example, the ability to ‘envision’ the future, set and design strategy, and motivate others to achieve shared goals. But not all successful leaders are the same. A recent global study finds significant regional variations in the behaviours of successful leaders — and in the expectations and preferences of their followers.
Many research studies provide evidence of the impact of culture on leadership. For example, the Global Leadership and Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness study or GLOBE, one of the most extensive comparative leadership research projects, has recently shown that while ideal characteristics are the same in all countries, some leadership styles are endorsed more in some cultures than in others.
Complementing these studies, researchers from the College of Business at the University of Illinois and INSEAD analysed data on successful top and middle managers collected via the Global Executive Leadership Inventory or GELI, a 360-degree assessment tool that includes both self evaluation and evaluations by superiors, subordinates, co-workers, suppliers and family and friends.
Developed by the organizational psychologist Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, a clinical professor of leadership development at INSEAD, and used in INSEAD coaching programs, GELI measures 12 leadership dimensions that can be grouped into the charismatic and architectural aspects of leadership.
The study analysed data on 1,746 leaders and ratings from 13,166 observers, and spanned 128 nationalities. For the purposes of analysis, data was divided into cultural meta-clusters and sub-categories used by the GLOBE project. Put simply, leaders in the East were compared with leaders in the West.
The results suggest that global leaders across the world display similar patterns of leadership behaviour — but that there are significant differences between them.
Controlling for factors such as industry, age and gender, as well as for the cultural origin and the roles of observers, the researchers found that global leaders from the ‘East’ are rated more highly on the dimensions of Designing & Aligning, Outside Orientation, Emotional Intelligence and Resilience to Stress.
More ‘granular’ analysis suggested that leaders from South-East Asia are likely to be rated higher on the dimension of Visioning, and that leaders from Britain, North America, Australia and other English speaking nations are likely to be rated lower for Visioning, Empowering, Rewarding & Feedback and Team Building. Meanwhile, leaders from Eastern Europe scored more highly for Empowering and Tenacity, and leaders from Nordic Europe did better on the Global Mindset dimension.
The results also suggest that some of the demands of leadership might be particularly tough for leaders in the Middle East, who were rated higher than average for Emotional Intelligence but lower than average for Life Balance.
What explains the findings? The researchers point to a number of possible factors, including the personality traits of leaders and the influence of the particular industry they work in. They conclude, however, that there are cultural determinants of leadership styles. If, for example, emotional intelligence is not seen as very important in a culture, leaders will be less likely to enact it themselves and rate themselves highly for it.
The research suggests that global leaders need to adapt their leadership styles and behaviours to the country in which they’re doing business. They have to be sensitive to the preferences of followers — in much the same way as they have to be sensitive to the preferences of consumers and suppliers, etc. The maxim ‘think global, act local’ should apply across all interactions with all stakeholders.
This is not, of course, to argue that people should be seen in terms of national or cultural stereotypes — rather that a holistic view of the individual should include their cultural origin.
More generally, the research points to a need for greater self-knowledge among leaders: observer ratings are lower than self-ratings for all dimensions for both meta-clusters.