You might know that I live in the ‘international’ city of Amsterdam and guess what? In 1992, 60 percent of our approximately 1 million inhabitants had Dutch parents and last year for the first time ever, we had more ‘foreigners’ living in Amsterdam than nationals. And if we believe futurists, this will increase to more than 60 percent in 2035.
I was in Miami three weeks ago and I noticed a board saying that ‘English is spoken here’. Fantastic, because I never noticed they did. Added to all this was that we also found women in the boardroom — Frightening isn’t it? And what about young people, millennials as some call them, having new insights that we badly need at the very top? We have a diversity of diversity that can’t be approached by segmenting the gender from a generational issue, and a national from a functional issue.
In short, my concern is about the unprecedented growth in diversity which needs a new approach than what our established, tired, culturally biased models, in particular those in HR provide. They don’t seem to work anymore in multi-cultural environments. Whilst in the US we admire leaders for what they deliver in their tasks, in France it is the respect for the leader’s educational background that allows top-down orders, and in Sweden, a leader delegates and likes bottom-up decentralization. But what leader will you be when facing a multi-cultural team? Indeed, you don’t have a clue. You remember ten years ago we tried courage for leaders and that didn’t work. And what is the fashion today? Indeed, it is caution and it doesn’t work either.
Another of my concerns is that most of our culturally biased models are bi-polar and based on mutually exclusive realities. Take MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) where you apparently do your thinking at the cost of your feeling — and aren’t we either individualistic or collectivistic, centralized or decentralized?
HR models have been taken for granted for so long that we hardly know if alternative ways of looking at them exist or not.
And we both know very well that as a leader you have to inspire as well as listen. You have to make decisions yourself but also delegate, and you need to centralize your organization around local responsibilities. As a professional, you need to master your materials and at the same time you need to be passionately at one with the mission of the whole organization. You need to apply your brilliant analytic skills in order to place these contributions in a larger context. You are supposed to have priorities and put them in a meticulous sequence, while parallel processing is in vogue. You need to be courageous in the context of caution. You have to develop a brilliant strategy and at the same time have all the answers to questions in case your strategy misses its goals. No wonder there are so many definitions of effective leadership.
There is a need for a new paradigm, for the development of a meta-theory of leadership that transcends cultural diversity — the future HR professional can’t avoid it in the times we are living.
We have recently seen where cultural biased and bi-polar thinking has led us to. We have followed Brexit (UK vs. Europe) with a new US president Trump (USA vs. Mexicans and Republicans vs. Democrats). We are having referenda in Italy and France leading to more polarization and cultural bias where it is obvious that populism is fed by juxtaposing the establishment with the majority.
What key question or questions should HR professionals be asking themselves about this topic or seeking to address?
May I ask you some questions? Does your organization face an increasing diversity in markets, staff and the board? Have you noticed that traditional linear approaches to your challenges increasingly lack effectiveness? Have you noticed some opposition in your organization against an increasing number of rules and the need for standardization? I have good news for you if the answer to these questions is a ‘yes’.
Our research clearly reveals that competence in reconciling dilemmas is the most discriminating feature that differentiates successful and less successful leaders today in this new diverse world. Leaders increasingly need to “manage culture” by fine-tuning dilemmas, very carefully. This also means, increasingly, that culture leads the organization. The leader defines what an organization views as excellent and develops an appropriate culture, thereby ensuring that the organization cannot do anything other than excel.
Two final questions remain.
Does it work in theory?
In this article, I have tried to demonstrate that extant dominant theories of leadership and other HR models, characterized by bi-polarity and cultural bias do not resolve the main dilemmas leaders are facing created by the diverse environments in which we are living. How can a leader be effective in a multi-cultural environment? We have found this integration theory resolves most black spots in existing leadership theories. We have given conceptual and empirical evidence that one need to focus on the reconciling competence of leaders.
We undertook qualitative as well as questionnaire based investigations in parallel on value dilemmas leading to the construction of a cross-cultural database of 140,000 managers/leaders revealing 45,000 dilemmas. The latter required the development of a range of instruments that were originally focused at discriminating value systems at the ecological level (country specific) to derive models of cross-culture and measure cultural differences. The high reliability of these instruments is well known as exhaustive statistical and other analytical studies have been undertaken and published extensively. This database and its principal questionnaire instruments have been used extensively in training workshops and consultancy interventions across the world. Validity has been constantly improved from qualitative and quantitative studies including internal formalized research and by university PhD doctoral students many of whom we have supervised.
Does it work in practice?
Through our consulting work we have found that the ‘Integration theory of leadership’ is effective in a variety of key business processes ranging from innovation, risk management and learning. Selection instruments need to be adapted to be able to ‘scan’ intercultural competence. We have found that leaders can be more effective in practice by reconciling dilemmas raised within teams and learning environments.
Resulting from these activities, a number of core propositions concerning the underlying behaviors that are characteristic of high performing leaders in the global workplace were assembled. The interest was to develop an underlying robust theory to explain the effective performance of the global leader (and global manager) and thereby provide a model for improving professional practice through what we have described as intercultural competence.
The central premise that evolved is that the propensity to reconcile seemingly opposed values is the key competence behavior to be an effective leader in today's world. And that should become the main focus of our future HR professionals.