4 2018

Over my career, my international and cross-cultural experiences have been some of my most enjoyable and rewarding ones. Whether I was organizing or attending an international conference, serving on the IAWF Board of Directors, collaborating with a co-author from another country, or doing a little consulting far away from home — whatever the role or purpose, I have benefitted from every opportunity to work with colleagues from cultures other than my own and to try my hand at leading cross-culturally. My participation in the IAWF afforded me many of those opportunities.

The Association is dedicated to communicating with the entire wildland fire community and providing global linkage for people with shared interest in wildland fire and comprehensive fire management. Partnering on events like the recent 8th International Conference on Forest Fire Research serves to actualize the commitment that the IAWF has made. I remember fondly my opportunity to attend this excellent conference while serving as IAWF President.

The IAWF is an international organization and it is a leadership organization — a challenging combination. International organizations, and an international organization whose mission is leadership in particular, require leaders who can adapt quickly to different environments and work effectively with partners personnel with attitudes, values, and cultural practices different than their own.

Culture has enormous implications for leadership. Four elements — the leader, the led, the context and the situation — make up the leadership environment. And culture represents an important element of both the context and the immediate situation. Within the leadership environment, relationships and influence — which are dependent on communications, shared values, emotional and social intelligence, character, and trust — all coalesce to catalyze leadership. As one might imagine, both culture and context have direct influence on how one can apply all of those leadership catalysts in a given situation.

The research is pretty darned clear. When it comes to leadership, there are significant national and cultural differences in work-related attitudes and values, which are generally clustered by language, religion, geography and level of economic development. This is really important, because many of the dominant leadership theories were developed in North America or Europe, by Americans and Europeans, studying Americans and Europeans. So, we must always ask whether a leadership practice we are fond of makes sense cross-culturally, even when it has served us well in our usual work environment. This would be true for a would-be leader hoping to influence individual people of different cultural backgrounds as well as for a would-be leader seeking to apply their experience in a new cultural setting. And we cannot assume that a manager, successful in one national or organizational culture, will be successful in another.

For example, people regard influence differently by culture/cultural cluster, and credible research indicates that the effectiveness of influence tactics varies by culture. Consequently, cultural differences in the leadership environment have enormous implications for a would-be leader’s influence tactics and application of power. Leaders must make an effort to understand, and remain sensitive to, the culture of which they have become a part. In addition, we must recall that organizational cultures are embedded within the broader societal culture and that there is constant interplay between the two. At the bottom line, unless they attend to culture, a successful leader employing what is normally an effective leadership approach in one cultural context may fail miserably in another context.

The good news is that the research indicates that while cultural differences certainly impact leadership practice, the basic functions of leadership appear to be universal. It seems that culture is most important in practice. In other words, even if a basic function of leadership — like establishing and maintaining trust — is universal, would-be leaders may perform this function differently as demanded by the cultural context. This corresponds with what we know from situational leadership theory. We know that, when it comes to leadership, the situation matters and is indeed a major element of the leadership environment.

I have always been inspired by John Gardner, and consider his classic book On Leadership a go-to text.

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John Gardner - "On Leadership." Book cover.

Among other accomplishments, Gardner was a World War II veteran, served as Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, founded both Common Cause and Independent Sector, resigned as HEW Secretary to protest the Vietnam War, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and has a center for youth leadership at Stanford University named after him.

I find Gardner most articulate on the subject of culture. According to Gardner, “How a group moves to meet universal human needs is determined by the culture; and how leaders conduct themselves must take culture into account.” Gardner was quite clear on why he believed that leaders must understand culture, and his argument is compelling. According to Gardner, “Much of culture is latent. It exists in the minds of its members, in their dreams, in their unconscious. It can be discerned in their legends, in their art and drama of the day, in religious themes, in their history as a people, in their seminal documents, in the stories of their heroes.”

Basically, Gardner holds that culture infuses every fiber of people; it is just part of us. Gardner was talking broadly about social culture, but much of what he said applies directly to organizational culture as well. One must understand and attend to the culture of those we hope to lead; without doing so, leadership success will prove, at best, elusive — and more likely, improbable.

Leadership is both situational and contextual, and culture — whether national, ethnic, or organizational — matters as it profoundly contributes to both the greater context in which we attempt to lead as well as the immediate situation. However, despite the influence of culture, it is also pretty clear that all leadership contexts are distinct from one another; we never really find ourselves in exactly the same situation. In addition, we might as well assume that, regardless of what generalizations we can make about the influence of culture, individual people will interact with each one in somewhat unpredictable ways within the culture.

I have found this uniqueness of leadership context and the general unpredictability of people to be true whether we are talking about the interplay of leadership and societal or national culture, or the interplay of leadership and organizational culture. Each organization’s culture is unique and can include distinct sub-cultures within that culture. As leaders, we cannot predict the interaction of each individual within the organization’s culture, but we can think about how the organization’s culture contributes to individual behavior and the interaction between people.

Culture has big implications for leadership, and would-be leaders, because culture directly influences two of the key elements, context and the situation, that make-up the leadership environment. In addition, within the leadership environment, leadership is catalyzed by relationships and influence; and both culture and context have direct influence on how one can practice relationship-building and influence tactics in a given context. Consequently, a savvy leader will set about purposefully understanding and adjusting for the culture in which they hope to lead.

BIO: Mike DeGrosky is Chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Division of Forestry. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.