Leadership is a critical part of the success of any organisation. However, we cannot divorce the approach to leadership within the organisation from the country and the culture within which it operates. Running an office in Lagos, Mumbai or Johannesburg is significantly different from operating in London, Berlin or New York.
Let us expand on this a bit more. With crude over-simplification, we may say that Japanese managers avoid telling people what to do, relying instead on indirect and suggestive communication strategies to guide employees towards achieving objectives. This works in the Japanese culture because it is based on honour and intuitive communication traits. German employees on the other hand like to receive detailed information and instruction from their bosses. Australian managers tend to be more informal, making use of jokes to engage with employees. Canadian managers tend to be low-key and humorous when talking to staff who are mostly calm, laid-back and tolerant.
The takeaway message for this brief tour of culture is that the leadership style has to be adjusted to take account of the culture within which it is embedded.
At the risk of gross generalisation, we are going to consider how some cultures manifest within the leadership styles of organisations.
Leaders in Africa have to show sensitivity to the burden of colonialism and imperialism – which were characterised by foreign powers imposing rules and regulations on local cultures, with negative consequences, and which persist to this day. In some cases, this manifests as a subtle resistance to Western-style business practices and organisational cultures.
Postcolonial management systems focused primarily on control, with systems centred upon individuals and results-driven by the logic of bureaucratic control mechanisms. There are still vestiges of control-oriented postcolonial management styles in Africa.
Many African organisations have adopted management methods imported through multinationals and development agencies. Importing Western management precepts also involves the training of African managers in the tools and processes of Western leadership. Western management styles can thus be seen in many African organisations.
The African Renaissance movement puts great emphasis on stakeholder understanding and a reconnection to African cultural principles based on the communal functioning of organisations. This is most commonly displayed in the notion of ubuntu, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/ubuntu-south-africa-together-nelson-mandela/?template=next through reclamation of culture, religion, and African values to pursue African development. An understanding of community is an important part of managing in Africa. Workplace relationships interlink with relationships outside the workplace, the boundary is fluid.
Leadership styles for Indian organisations are generally regarded as autocratic with subordinates closely supervised by their superiors. Only a limited degree of participation is allowed to the subordinates.
The autocratic style is most prevalent style is In family-managed, traditional organisations. Sons and grandsons of the entrepreneurs are automatically promoted without consideration of efficiency or overall suitability. Thus, the family-owned organisations are highly centralised in their organisation structure and are authoritarian in their approach.
Many organisations in the private sector are owned by Indians or by multinationals. These organisations have substantial degree of participation or democratic leadership. Multinationals bring not only their technology but also a work culture which is more permissive and conducive towards participative management. As such, the degree of participation is greater in such organisations. Organisations in the Indian public sector tend to be more bureaucratic because of the work culture inherited by public sector managers. This could be a legacy of India’s colonial past. Respect and deference are frequently part of the managerial mix. https://www.businesstoday.in/magazine/columns/story/the-indian-way-of-management-15999-2010-10-09
American management style is highly individualistic; managers are accountable for the decisions made within their areas of responsibility. The ultimate responsibility for the consequences of decisions lies with the boss. It epitomises the American dream; that outstanding success will inevitably bring outstanding rewards. American managers are more likely to disregard the opinions of subordinates than managers in other, more consensus or compromise-seeking cultures. Persons in other parts of the world are exposed to American management culture as portrayed in American movies. https://hbr.org/2011/06/why-american-management-rules
Employees in Chinese organisations prefer paternalistic, moral leadership, although there is an emerging preference for transformational leadership. https://www.investorsinpeople.com/knowledge/transformational-leadership/. They prefer authoritarian leadership least.
When Chinese managers demonstrate their morality to employees or display transformational leadership behaviours, they are likely to be recognised by many as a leader, because their behaviours are congruent with what employees expect. Compliance with authority seems no longer to be a common value in China. Therefore, it is necessary that managers treat contemporary Chinese employees in an egalitarian way. https://hbr.org/2014/09/a-chinese-approach-to-management
A superficial treatment, such as the one above, cannot hope to do justice to such a broad topic. We have dealt in a cursory manner with some obvious examples. And for every point we have put across, there is a convincing counterargument. The essence of the debate is that leaders need to develop a cultural sensitivity, that pays respect to the historical context of the society within which they find themselves. Colonialism, gender, race and language all play a part. We all come to the role of leadership with our own prejudices and preferences. A starting point is to acknowledge that we have these prejudices and that if we remain blind to our prejudices, we are curtailing the impact of our leadership.
The ability to adjust leadership behaviours to the cultural context is a key competence of successful leaders. This has a number of implications for leadership development. First, training that equips leaders with knowledge and skills coping with different followers improves their chances of success. Second, leaders who are sensitive to the needs of diverse teams would acquire a repertoire of managerial interactions and be more culturally sensitive.
We should all develop a deeper curiosity for cultural understanding, and a willingness to engage transparently with others different from ourselves.