How Culturally Agile Is Your Leadership?

Written by Dr. Kelly Whelan

Dr. Whelan is the Founder and CEO of Belem LLC. She specializes in partnering, empowering, and positioning executive leaders and teams for success by helping them design strategies that create stakeholder impact.

October 30, 2021

Have you considered working abroad?

Many leaders have ideas of grandeur and anxious anticipation as they consider the possibility of working in another country.  Yet, without a solid foundational worldview, more specifically, the national culture the leader is entering, failure is imminent.

Today’s world organizations are a melting pot of individuals with their values shaped by upbringing and experiences.  It is no longer enough to have the desire to lead in a country other than your own. More is required.

If you are looking to be successful in your global organization, being successful takes work. Before immersing yourself in culture, it’s important to gain knowledge and understanding of the culture. However, you first must understand your own culture before learning about others. Why? Let’s take a look.


Is Your Mental Model Skewed?

Culture has a broader meaning than common expression, and is a kaleidoscope of diversity.  The mental software we each have adopted through our life experiences such as thinking, feeling, and acting make up our cultural practices, symbols, rituals and what we consider of value.  What people perceive as right and true based on the values that each individual depicts as acceptable in our home country may be frowned upon or down right insulting in another.

When a leader’s mental model is skewed, so is their decision making. Leaders who only assume, rather than intimately know the national culture and therefore, organizational culture may find themselves filling in their assumptions with false information. What leaders and teams perceive, how they frame experiences, and what they value can lead to conflict.

Because varying cultural values can create conflict both individually and organizationally, it is up to organizations to educate their leaders on cross-cultural diversity, and gain insight to norms of the local culture.  Leaders are able to gain knowledge about other cultures by being students of culture, learning about specific values, rituals, symbols, and getting along in another’s environment through practicing necessary skills.  So, how do we do this?


How to Create a Culture of Learning

Becoming a global leader is a learning process.

In an ever-changing global world, assessing culture has become increasing important for leaders to not just learn about, but to demonstrate accordingly. Most green leaders learn  quickly that leading in the global arena is much more complex than leading domestically and unless fully prepared, the experience can fall apart quickly.

Creating a cultural learning environment should be part of organizational strategy.  Culture and organizational specific programs should teach the culture, and decipher how business is done.  This may alleviate some of the pre-conceived notions and/or expectations of the assigned country.


Cultural agility is about change and adaption to culture through an ongoing practice of skills, abilities, experiences, and motivation. 


Cultural agility, although important, has many leaders feeling challenged. Cultural barriers elevate challenges which include cultural issues and conflicts in areas of regulatory requirements, opposition from stakeholders, and unexpected costs.

Too often a leader thinks she or he is culturally agile based on their business travel or expat experiences. These are not an accurate assessment of a culturally agile leader.

How do you bridge the gap?

In different ways, trainers, mentors, leader and team coaches can help bridge the gap for their leaders.

  • A trainer bridges the gap through information sharing. Training teaches the leader from the standpoint of learning skills and behavior. These are in person or video training modules.
  • A mentor bridges the gap by pouring into the leader with their own experiences. Having someone who has walked in your shoes and is willing to bring their “on the job training” for your benefit adds a heightened level of learning.
  • A coach helps bridge the gap to help the leader sift through what they are experiencing around a heightened level of ambiguity and complexity. Coaches walk with leaders and teams to help them attain their goals, regardless of the country culture they lead in. Team coaches help teams align their shared purpose, values, and way forward so regardless of national culture, the team can co-create impact for their stakeholders.

Being cultural agile and intelligent is not a one stop shopping experience. Cross-cultural learning is an ongoing process.  This learning process  aids organizations as they reach across boundaries with co-located teams.  Leaders must open their eyes to new ways, ideas, thinking, processes, and leading with a more complex worldview as a foundation.

This process takes time, energy, and openness to developing otherness rather than being self-absorbed with self-interest. Having cultural awareness and competence has a direct affect on a leaders global assignment.


Does Country Culture Really Matter?

I talk a lot about the collectiveness of the body when talking with leaders and teams. However, when it comes down to understanding collectiveness vs. individualistic in a cultural sense, there is a difference. Yes, organizations are a collection of people, but different cultural attributes lie within.

Organizational design must take cultural differences into consideration. There are major differences between individualist and collectivist cultures.  These differences spill over from personal to professional life and are necessary to consider as you step into your leadership role and place on a team.


Leaders and country culture must compliment each other in order to create value and positive impact. 


Leaders and teams have an obligation to preserve culture as it continually adapts to today’s world.  This can be seen in many collectivist cultures where many face extinction as a bigger and brighter world emerges.

Collectivist Countries

Leading in a collectivist country looks very different from an individualist country like the United States (US).  Having said that, there are predictabilities that come with this.  Most of the world is made up of collectivist who are focused on “the group” rather than individual aspirations.  Relationship building is a big part of gaining trust, and aligning the leader’s vision with the organizational goals in any organization.

However, collectivist organizations are family oriented valuing their personal relationships over the tasks of the organization and are mutually obligatory.  A paternalistic or authoritarian leadership approach lends itself to a top-down decision-making process and there is no “I” in this “we” culture. Collectivist countries that practice Confucianism are loyal, seek to keep harmony, and save face even when poor performance in an individualistic organization would be cause for termination.

Individualist Countries

Conversely, individualist societies and therefore organizations, typically value individual achievement, innovation, and identity.  There is more informal corporate structure allowing for bottom-up decision-making.  These decisions are made on an individual level rather than as a group, which shows initiative, something that is frowned upon in the collectivist culture.  Unlike a collectivist employee who pledges loyalty, an individualistic employee views their role as a business transaction.

For teams, regardless of being from or leading in a collectivist or individualist society, there has to be a shared way forward. A team coach can assist with facilitating common ground and understanding.


Sitting in the Uncomfortableness 

In truth, adapting to different cultures may be uncomfortable, yet for organizations that understand the need for aligning the multitude of forces and strategies on their international journey, developing and adapting becomes the brass ring.  In reality, the global talent pool is slim. Although cultural differences exist, there lies an importance in immersing one self into cultures other than your own.

There is complexity and a learning curve that can be challenging for global executives.  Seeking guidance from a professional coach can assist in building awareness and bridging the cultural learning gap.


Defining Success

Success is defined by the culture that perceives it, therefore, learning the ins and outs of national culture as it pertains to global leadership is a requirement.  This article is just the tip of the iceberg to peak curiosity, and send a clear message that cultural agility and cultural intelligence has to be more than a desire to lead cross-culturally, but rather, an intentional effort to establish yourself as a cross-cultural leader through an on-going learning process.

Are you ready?


Be sure to tune in to the BelemLeaders podcast CONVERSATIONS For Leaders & Teams, or on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite listening platform!

Click here to purchase your copy of Leadership Excellence By Design: Strategies For Sustainability & Strength on Amazon! 

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