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The Impact of Culture and Cultural Contexts on Global Leadership

Updated on January 3, 2015

There she sat listless, sullen, and ready to die. For two years, infection had slowly invaded her body and brain and the once spry and sometimes playfully contentious young Cambodian lady was a mere shell of herself. After exhausting all her medical options within the national healthcare system, she had chosen to die at home in the presence of her loved ones. Yet another victim had been ravished by the HIV/AIDS pandemic (personal communication).

He was an American Christian worker called to be an organizational developer and leader in a cross-cultural setting. For nearly three years, he had led a Christian ministry in the young Cambodian lady’s village. As he gazed upon her that fateful day, he could not help but think back over the events that had transpired during those same two years when the infections exacted their toll.

From the day he discovered her ill health, he began a race against time to find her the healthcare she needed to stay alive. To his chagrin, he met seemingly inconceivable (at least inconceivable to his American Christian mind) and maddening obstacles along the way.

National healthcare workers wanted extra money to give basic care; relatives would not agree to transport her to the hospital for doctor visits; fellow Cambodian friends, brothers and sisters neglected promises to visit and encourage her while in the hospital; and she herself would not spend a few U.S. dollars a month to get to the doctor for fear that her aging but healthy mother would not have enough to eat.

It seemed to this American man that there was some kind of misunderstanding or communication gap between his own preconceived ideas and cultural expectations and those of the Cambodians he was attempting to serve and lead (personal communication).

Such communication gaps or misunderstandings are common in global organizations (Harris, Moran, and Moran, 2004, p. 44). The mindsets, customs, and contextual communication styles of leaders and workers from one culture often clash with the worldviews and practices of those from other cultures (Fisher, 1988, p. 57; Yukl, 2006, p. 431). The American Christian leader working in Cambodia, like other leaders in global organizations, failed to realize that those from other cultures would not perceive things or reason through problems or even hold the same ideals and values as he; and that they would do so because they were born and raised in a different cultural context. In order to lead global organizations effectively, global leaders must understand the impact of cultural contexts on their workplaces and how differences in cultural perspectives can affect their operations in a foreign setting. Furthermore, they must be trained on how to handle cross-cultural conflict for the mutual benefit of the organization and the parties involved.

This hub examines the impact of cultural contexts on global leadership and how global leaders can effectively manage cultural differences in the workplace by briefly discussing (a) the concept of culture and its impact on the individual; (b) the necessity of cross-cultural training for global leaders; and (c) attitudes and competencies pertaining to effective cross-cultural leadership.

Culture and Its Impact on the Individual

Culture is a distinctly human construct and phenomenon that acts as the driving force behind human behavior (Grunlan & Mayer, p. 39; Harris et al., p. 4). If this is so, how is culture defined? What impact does it have on how individuals see the world? And, how does it impact communication between peoples from different cultures attempting to work together in a cross-cultural setting?

Culture Defined

Culture is a complex concept but may generally be defined as a social system in which one learns and shares attitudes, values, and ways of behaving with others in the same societal setting (Johnson; Grunlan & Mayer). Fisher and Harris et al. describe culture as a set of coping skills passed on to a child by those who have gone before them that gives the child a sense of identity and belonging. More specifically, Johnson explains that

Culture consists primarily of symbols and various kinds of ideas that shape how we think about everything from our relations with other people to the meaning of life…. Culture is both material – the “stuff” of social life – and nonmaterial – the symbols and ideas we use to think and give meaning to just about everything. (p. 39).

These ideas people use to think and give meaning to just about everything help them develop what is referred to as a cultural mindset or worldview.

The Impact of Culture on Worldviews

Kraft (1997) found that culture consists of two basic levels: the surface behavior level and the deeper worldview level (p. 11). He observed that the core of culture is found in the deeper worldview level where one finds the structuring of basic assumptions, values, and allegiances that dictate the attitudes and behaviors of an individual from a particular culture. Kraft also asserts that most people consider their customs and the assumptions that underlie them are correct (p. 30).

Thus, due to the respective contexts of their upbringings, members within a global organization who come from different cultural backgrounds will most likely not share the same worldview and thus will not approach ideas and problems from an identical set of assumptions, values, and allegiances (Fisher, pp. 16-17). On the contrary, such differences in respective worldviews or cultural mindsets can become a source of conflict and have an adverse impact on the work of the organization. Harris et al. emphasize that such does not have to be the case and that a skillful global leader can use diversity to enhance the operations of an organization. Still, communication and cooperation between members of an organization can be hindered by the type of cultural context from which they come.

Communication and Cultural Contexts

Hall (1981) made an important distinction between what he described as high- and low-context cultures and how the matter of context impacts communication (Harris et al, p. 44; Hall, pp. 105-116). The general differences between high- and low-context communications are tied to the amount of explicit information which must be shared verbally when attempting to convey a message. Hall explains "a high-context communication as one in which most information is either in the physical context or internalized (preprogrammed) in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. A low-context communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code (i.e. the spoken words)." (p. 91).

Nations identified as high-context cultures include Japan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and China whereas nations identified as low-context cultures include Canada, the United States, and many European countries. Harris et al. note that “communication between high- and low-context people is often fraught with impatience and irritation” and “unless global leaders are aware of the subtle differences, communication misunderstandings between low- and high-context communicators can result” (pp. 44-45).

If this is so, how can a practitioner of global leadership effectively lead an organization with members who come from different cultural contexts and thus, think and act according to different (sometimes conflicting) cultural mindsets?

The Necessity of Cross-Cultural Training for Global Leaders

In order to remain competitive more corporations are expanding operations around the globe or outsourcing jobs to foreign countries (Harris, Moran, and Moran, 2004, p. 23). In light of this reality, Yukl, (2004) observed, “Leaders are increasingly confronted with the need to influence people of other cultures and must be able to understand how people from different cultures view them and interpret their actions” (p. 430). Thus, a practitioner of global leadership can effectively lead a multi-cultural organization by learning how to manage cultural differences in the workplace in such a way that optimizes cross-cultural synergy and collaboration within its ranks (Harris et al.). Moreover, Harris et al and Fisher suggest that "to create opportunities of collaboration, global leaders must learn not only the customs, courtesies, and business protocols of their counterparts from other countries, but they must also understand the national character, management philosophies, and mindsets of the people." (p. 17; p. 171).

As this is the case, what attitudes should global leaders foster and what competencies should they develop in order to effectively manage a cross-cultural organization and optimize the impact of cultural contexts on that organization?

Attitudes and Competencies of Effective Global Leaders

Given the limited scope of this paper, it is not possible to explore fully all the attitudes and competencies necessary for effective global leadership. Accordingly, this paper will be brought to a close by briefly examining two attitudes (discovered during six years as a cross-cultural leader) and ten key concepts (listed by Harris et al.) that can serve as foundational blocks to a successful career as a global leader.

Two key attitudes for effective global leadership discovered during six years of working abroad are humility and teachability (Unite for Sight, Module 6). Humility is not a characteristic often equated to strong leadership; yet, Collins (2001) found that humility was a common characteristic for corporate heads who had guided their Fortune 500 companies from good to great performance (pp. 21-25). While Collins’ research centered on American corporations, Hunt (2009) observed that the recent success enjoyed abroad by new American President Barack Obama was due in part to his “trademark humility” (p. 1). Humility can be defined as having a right attitude about one’s self (not thinking too highly or too lowly about one’s own stature or place in the world) (Strom, 2009, p. 1). Humility is often contrasted with selfish pride and arrogance which breed ethnocentrism or the view that the norms and practices of one’s own culture is vastly superior to all other cultures and should be promoted above all others (Lecture II, 2009). Unfortunately,

Perceiving the entire cultural world of humankind through the narrow prisms of one’s own culture, and given to diminishing and slighting the values and achievements of other cultures, ethnocentricity is clearly an impediment to the understanding of other cultures and, consequently, to the cultivation of humanity. (Lecture II).

In relation to global leadership, humility allows global leaders to discard ethnocentric thinking and replace it “with sensitivity to cultural differences and an appreciation of a people’s distinctiveness and seeks to make allowances for such factors when communicating with representatives of that cultural group” (Unite for; Harris et al., p. 21). Harris et al further state that the first step in managing cultural differences effectively is increasing one’s general awareness of the given host culture (p. 21). This means that global leaders must be teachable; willing to engage the process of cross-cultural learning and learn the nuances that play into the cultural context of one’s host culture (Unite for; Module 6).

Beyond the two attitudes of humility and teachability, Harris et al suggest global leaders can enhance their effectiveness in managing cultural differences by developing along the lines of ten key concepts. The ten concepts highlighted by Harris et al. are:

1. Global Leadership – being capable of operating effectively in a global environment while being respectful of cultural diversity.

2. Cross-Communication – understanding the impact of cultural factors on communication and adapting accordingly.

3. Cultural Sensitivity – understanding cultural influences on behavior and being able to translate such cultural understanding into effective relationships.

4. Acculturation – effectively adjusting and adapting to a specific culture.

5. Cultural Influences on Management – understanding that management philosophies are culturally conditioned and that management practices common in one culture may not easily translate to another culture.

6. Effective Intercultural Performance – applying cultural theory and insight to specific cross-cultural situations in order to positively affect people work performance.

7. Changing International Business – coping with the interdependence of business activity throughout the world while at the same time appreciating the effect of cultural differences on standard business practices and principles.

8. Cultural Synergy – building on the differences of people from the vast array of cultures spread across the globe for mutual growth and accomplishment through collaboration and cooperation.

9. Work Culture – applying the general characteristics of culture to the specifics of how people work at a point in time and place.

10. Global Culture – understanding that through the continued growth of communication technologies a unique global culture with some common characteristics may be emerging. (Harris et al., pp. 25-27).

In order to gain the types of understandings listed in the ten concepts, a practitioner of effective global leadership must grow in communication and observational skills. These two skills help to build a framework for other necessary skills and competencies. Harris et al. list five characteristics of global communication

1. No matter how hard one tries, one cannot avoid communicating.

2. Communication does not necessarily mean understanding.

3. Communication is irreversible.

4. Communication occurs in a context.

5. Communication is a dynamic process. (pp. 41-42).

Furthermore, they mention two keys to cross-cultural communication – context and listening (pp. 44-50). The concept of high- and low-context communication has already been mentioned. Harris et al. note six common types of listening including (a) hearing, (b) information gathering, (c) cynical listening, (d) offensive listening, and (e) polite listening, but highlight (f) active listening as the most effective means of interacting with others (pp. 48-49). Moreover, in cross-cultural exchanges, Harris et al. mention that one must listen at three levels:

1. Pay attention to the person and the message.

2. Emphasize and create rapport.

3. And, share meaning by sharing your understanding (paraphrasing) the speaker’s message.

Active listening is an important communication skill that aids the development of the second foundational competency – observational skills. Fisher wrote: “When in a foreign environment, one needs to sharpen one’s observational skills” to discover cultural patterns and their underlying mindsets (pp. 173-174). Active discovery of such cultural patterns and mindsets allows the global leadership practitioner to understand his cross-cultural counterparts and the most appropriate ways to interact with them. In this manner, the leader in a cross-cultural context can most effectively manage cultural differences and optimize synergy and cooperation in his organization.


The American Christian organizational leader stationed in Cambodia had difficulty reconciling his own perceptions and expectations with those of his Cambodian counterparts. Somehow there was a disconnect between his mindset or worldview and theirs which resulted in misunderstanding and a lack of cooperation in providing necessary healthcare for one of their fellow Cambodian citizens. Such communication gaps are common in global organizations and pose a challenge for practitioners of global leadership. This paper examined the impact of cultural contexts on global leadership and made some suggestions about how global leaders can effectively manage cultural differences in the workplace. This was accomplished by briefly discussing (a) the concept of culture and its impact on the individual; (b) the necessity of cross-cultural training for global leaders; and (c) attitudes and competencies pertaining to effective cross-cultural leadership.


(2009). Module 6: Cultural Differences and Cultural Understanding. Unite For Sight. Retrieved

(2009). Lecture II: The Emptiness of Ethnocentrism.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Fisher, G. (1988). Mindsets. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc.

Grunlan, S. & Mayer, M. (1988). Cultural Anthroplogy: A Christian Perspective,2e. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Hall, R. (1981). Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books.

Harris, P., Moran, R., & Moran, S. (2004). Managing Cultural Differences: Global leadership Strategies for the 21st Century. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

House, R., Hanges, P., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P., & Gupta. V. (2004). Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Hurt, C. (2009). Obama Butters Them Up in Cairo.

Johnson, A. G. (1997). The Forest and the Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise. Philadelphia: Temple University Press

Kraft, C. H. (1997). Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Strom, M. (2009). Humility. The Seven Heavenly Virtues of Leadership. .

Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.


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    • Sarah Wingate profile image

      Sarah Wingate 

      5 years ago from Tel Aviv, Israel

      Samuel Phillips Huntington said that war is a result of cultural conflict. Even if war is fought for territory or resources, the real cause will always be conflicting ways of live and ideal each society


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