Exploring Leadership Through A Cross-Cultural Lens

What does an Afghani Fulbright Scholar have to say about western-based leadership practices? Plenty!

10245388_10152724711018592_1511520557027070236_nNang Attal is a graduate student enrolled in my fall course entitled, Leadership and Management Excellence. From Afghanistan, Attal grew up in a rural tribal community often influenced by insurgents and extremists. What made and makes Attal unique is that he was and continues to be committed to the education of girls in a region that does not look kindly on such efforts. Attal has remained committed to this effort, despite threats and intimidation, not only because he wanted his sisters to receive an education but also because he cares deeply about equal access to an educational system for all Afghani boys and girls.

Attal’s efforts have been recognized nationally and globally. In October 2014, he was named the United Nations Youth Courage Award Recipient which was the same award given to Malala Yousafzai in 2013 for her work in advocating for the education of young girls in Pakistan. The recognition and notoriety of Attal’s accomplishments continue to mount.

And here he sits in my course in the very heart of San Francisco.

In our graduate course, Attal, along with students from Turkey, Thailand, India, the Pacific Rim, and the United States, has explored leadership theories and practices as applied in western-based organizations. As a class, we have also explored how these theories and practices are viewed globally. The insights have been rich and a powerful reminder that leadership theories and applications (many originated by western-trained researchers) must always be contextual, indigenously interpreted, and culturally embedded if they are to bring value.

This rich confluence of student experiences has produced some very specific perspectives and connections for the class as it relates to how leadership is understood globally and applied locally in the west.

1. Leadership is not about power but about relationships.

A Global Perspective: Leadership is fundamentally about building relationships and maintaining respect expressed within the context of a particular community. Knowing the people with whom you work and caring about their well-being, their aspirations, and goals are the drivers that inform the leader’s agenda.

The Connection: Leadership success and effectiveness is often defined by and based on the accumulation and exercise of power. Leaders can easily obsess over building their power blocks and avenues of influence while paying little attention to cultivating relationships within their organizations. A leader’s obsession with power at the expense of building and maintaining relationships leaves organizations weakened and people damaged and disillusioned.

Leadership Takeaway: Leadership begins with valuing and protecting the dignity and worth of people expressed primarily through the intentional and sustained cultivation of meaningful relationships.

2. Leadership takes place only within community.

10646625_10152724710543592_3290828217335337794_nA Global Perspective: The leader’s primary goal is to serve and advance the well-being of the community.

The Connection: The primary goal of the leader is the well-being of those within and beyond the organization who will benefit from the leader’s steadfast commitment to the goals of the organization. Leaders do not detach from the communities they are asked to lead. At no time do leaders place their own well-being ahead of those they serve or those whom the larger organization serves.

Leadership Takeaway: While leaders must deliver based on the goals and objectives of the organization, they must also remain focused on building and shaping a culture where people thrive holistically.

3. Leaders use narrative to communicate meaning and importance.

A Global Perspective: A leader’s experience of life, struggle, hardship, and perseverance is best communicated to others through narrative. Leaders tell stories that communicate truth and inspire others to action and commitment.

The Connection: Leadership expressed through narrative is powerful! A story that expresses vision, goals, or objectives can influence others and create deep understanding that compels action. The disconnect that we often see expressed by leaders who try to motivate and inspire using power, position, or hollow and empty organizational mantras can result in people who are unable to locate themselves in a leader’s strategy or scenario. When leaders cast vision and build commitment by connecting people to the life issues that matter and that fuel the human spirit, incredible performances can result at every level in the organization.

Leadership Takeaway: Effective leaders use their experiences as windows that explore and explain the deeper values of life and work that help people find meaning and take action in their own work and life responsibilities.

4. Leadership is about the vision and mission and not about the leader’s own agenda or success.

1969294_10152724710813592_753700437218746397_nA Global Perspective: Leadership is about advocating for and advancing the strategies and objectives of the community.

The Connection: This stands in stark contrast to the western preoccupation about the leader’s agenda: what leaders want, what leaders need, and how leaders go about achieving their goals. When the leader succeeds, well, the leader succeeds. In community-based cultural contexts, there is no leader as the “rugged individualist.” Rather, the leader is a community advocate pushing power and success out toward those within the community who must benefit from the success. The cause and the people benefited are equal in value.

Leadership Takeaway: Leadership is not about the leader’s success and reputation but about how the leader advances the vision and mission of the organization. These leaders move to the background while pushing the purpose of the enterprise and the people behind that enterprise to the foreground.

5. Experience trumps education and credentials (It’s about the Shoes!).

A Global Perspective: “It’s about the shoes,” Attal noted in a recent class discussion. He went on to explain that the older the person, the more shoes they have worn and worn out. So, when it comes to leadership, shoes (not credentials) matter.

The Connection: While the accumulation of years lived do not necessarily equal the accumulation of wisdom, spending more time listening and respecting the experiences of others is key for leaders. Indeed, while established and emerging leaders should pursue education and lifelong learning goals, they never sacrifice the importance of spending time listening to, learning from, and absorbing insights resulting from conversations with people up, down, and across the organization. While leaders must lead, they rarely do so unilaterally where the only voice they listen for is their own.

Leadership Takeaway: Not only do leaders maintain strong connections with organizational members, they take time to listen to the perspectives and experiences of those members regardless of tenure, degrees, or credentials. These leaders see these exchanges as opportunities to experience transformation at some level that will make them more aware, more prepared, and more courageous.

6. Leaders sacrifice and lead the way regarding commitment and perseverance.

A Global Perspective: The leader sacrifices personally and professionally to advance the group’s objectives and to move people forward who will benefit from the realization of those objectives…even at the leader’s own expense.

The Connection: It is rare to see leaders sacrifice anything, personally or professionally, to advance the agenda of the organization. Instead, we often see the leader asking followers to make the sacrifices and take the hits for the good of the overall effort while the leader remains untouched. So rare is this type of leader that when we see a leader acting sacrificially we are stunned and even jaundiced over the authenticity and integrity of such actions.

Leadership Takeaway: Leadership costs the leader, or, to say it differently, leaders make it possible for others to find meaning and success in-part because of their own sacrifices. They do not ask others to be the ones to sacrifice; rather, they lead the way in the sacrifice and, in so doing, model for others commitment and perseverance.

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