Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Influence of Culture on Leadership Development


With the expansion of the global economy, companies are forced to go global in order to become success. All the functions of organizations are increasingly demanding a global touch. Companies need to sell globally, hire globally, and they need to compete globally. In order to be successful in the global competition, tomorrow’s global enterprise need to understand and operate in different cultures. They need to understand how different cultures affect the core management functions. The purpose of this report is to critically analyze how the national culture influences the leadership development.

This discussion is based on several well accepted models in management. First one is the five dimensional model of culture by Geert Hofstede (2001). Hofstede identified five cultural dimensions that can be used to visualize the differences in culture between different countries and regions. We will discuss how the differences in each cultural dimension can lead to the development of different leadership traits in people. Next, we will use the traits to identify the leadership style associated with them. We will use three major leadership styles introduced by Kurt Lewin et al (1939), Authoritarian Leadership, Participative Leadership, and Laissez-Faire Leadership. Finally, we will see how this argument can be justified using a case study where several countries namely, Sri Lanka, Norway, Brazil, United States, Japan, and Germany compared for their culture and leadership style.

Fig 1: Cultures Influences on Leadership Style

Hofstede’s five dimensional Model

Hofstede defined 5 dimensions of culture and with them we can describe a particular culture and also can compare and contrast different cultures. They can be summarized as below.

1. Power Distance – The extent to which the less privileged people and communities accept and except unequal distribution of power.

2. Individualism – The extent to which the people are less likely to be responsible for in-groups such as families, clans, organizations, and for the entire society.

3. Masculinity – The extent to which people are driven by achievement, success, and power as opposed to caring, harmony, and quality of life.

4. Uncertainty Avoidance – The extent to which societies are intolerant to changes and more likely to be threatened by the uncertainty of the environment.

5. Long-term Orientation – The extent to which the societies show a future-oriented perspective rather than a short-term view.

Leadership Traits

Traits are patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior which define certain personal characteristics. Psychologists have done lot of studies in this area and identified various traits which can be positively and negatively contribute to leadership development. There are some traits which are found universally in every person; more or less to the same degree. Another set of traits are differ from person to person. Some traits, known as common traits, are shared within societies with the same culture and are observed similarly in persons who belong to that society. Culture is a important factor which causes traits to become strong or weak. We will take each cultural dimensions discussed above and analyze what are the leadership traits that can be influenced by them.

Leadership Styles

In 1939, Kurt Lewin identified three broad categories of leadership styles and named them as Autocratic, Democratic, and Laissez-Faire. Autocratic leaders plan, control, and make decisions by their own and they expect the subordinates to work towards the goals they set and obey the rules they placed. Democratic leaders collaborate with the followers, guide them and use a collective approach in planning, control, and decision making. Laissez-Faire leaders offer very little guidance to subordinates and expect them to plan and control their work themselves and let others to take their own decisions.

Culture Reinforces Leadership Traits

In this section we will discuss how each cultural dimension reinforces leadership traits.

Power Distance Traits

High power distance makes the leaders more dependable on their positional power and less on their personal power. With the authorities they possess, they simply make quick and independent decisions without getting the other people involved. As their authorities are less questionable in the society they feel confidence on themselves even thought the decisions are not guaranteed to be the best. People in high power distance cultures expect leaders to be more decisive and straightforward.

Individualism Traits

Individualistic societies show “I” consciousness rather than “we” consciousness. People are expected to be more independent and manage themselves. They are less dependent on the support of the collective entities such as team, organization, family etc. So the leadership allows people to be more independent while leaders becoming more flexible, facilitating and participative. Self respect and mutual respect are essential to maintain such a society. Tasks are getting high prioritized over the relationships, thus people are focused more on productivity.

Masculinity Traits

Masculine cultures live in order to work as opposed to work in order to live. For them big and fast are more beautiful than small and slow. People including leaders are highly motivated, decisive, and performance driven.

Uncertainty Avoidance Traits

People in cultures with strong uncertainty avoidance expect agreements, rules, and laws for maintain a rigid cultural framework. Leadership is characterized by judgment, less fairness, and less flexibility.

Long term Orientation Traits

Short-term oriented cultures greatly respect traditions, and expect quick results. On the other hand, long-term oriented cultures adapt their traditions to changed conditions and focus on saving and invest. Driven by short term visions and eager for quick results leaders shape themselves as straightforward, productive, and decisive persons. In contrast, with the long-term orientation they possess qualities such as quality, guiding, and inspiring.

Mapping Dimensions to Styles

The previous section discussed what the dominant leadership traits are when particular cultural dimension is high or low. Now, let us look at what are the leadership traits which can be observed in different leadership styles. Figure 2, figure 3, and figure 4 shows the dominant leadership traits found in each leadership style; autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire. The size of the font indicates to what extent each trait can be observed in the corresponding style. We can see a clear alignment in traits in each style with traits in each dimension and can observe which style is prominent in cultures where a particular dimension is high or low.

Autocratic traits are more aligned with high power distance, high masculinity, and high uncertainty avoidance. Also the traits which are less observable in autocratic leaders are aligned with low individualism and low long-term orientation.

Fig 2: Leadership Traits of Autocratic Leader

Democratic leaders can be found in high individualistic and low masculinity cultures. Power distance is showing an average value. High individualistic and high long-term orientated societies seem to be encouraging the democratic style.

Fig 3: Leadership Traits of Democratic Leader

Laissez-fair leaders cannot exist where the power distance is high so that when a society exhibit low power distance laissez-fair leadership can emerge.

Figure 4: Leadership Traits of Laissez-Faire Leader

Case Study

By mapping the cultural dimensions to leadership styles we can understand how each cultural dimension can influence leadership development. However more insight can be gained by analyzing how the combination of all dimensions maps with different leadership styles. Figure 5 shows how each cultural dimension is varying within six different cultures. We can see some interesting figures there. It clearly shows that each dimension is independent from others to a greater extent. While having closer values in some dimensions, some countries have highly shifted values for the others. For example, Sri Lanka and Norway are having very low values for the masculinity than the other countries.

Figure 5: Comparison

Figure 6 is a graphical illustration of the comparison. The magnitude of each dimension has plotted using a line graph and background cells have been colorized according to the leadership style. The boundaries between each style have been placed according to the arguments made in the previous sections.

By analyzing the data we can see each country is showing a dominant leadership style over the other. For example Brazil’s curve is aligned with the autocratic leadership style in most of the dimensions. So according to the results we can say that leaders in Brazil are tend to be more autocratic. Norwegian leadership is aligning with the democratic style. We can derive similar patterns for the other countries as well.


The result of this study showed that the culture has a very clear influence on the leadership development. For any organization which is operating in the global environment or has plans to do so, it is very important to understand the leadership style each culture is expecting. Also organizations can use this knowledge to tailor the leadership development strategy for different cultures and build the desired leadership style in their leaders 

Figure 6: Comparison

1. Hofstede, Geert (2001). Culture's Consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Chapter 1.
2. Lewin, K., LIippit, R. and White, R.K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 271-301 ( as cited in http://changingminds.org/disciplines/leadership/styles/lewin_style.htm)
3. http://www.tnellen.com/ted/tc/schein.html
4. http://www.culturegps.com/About.html

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