The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

MLDP Recap: “Global Leadership” with Chris Wohlforth

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This ongoing series explores sessions of the Management and Leadership Development Program (MLDP) through participant narratives. MLDP is a one-term program designed to develop citizen leaders among sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Dartmouth College. Led by expert guest speakers each week, sessions employ experiential teaching techniques to engage students through hands-on learning of core management and leadership skills.


Christianne Hardy Wohlforth collaborates with MLDP participants during a session. 

Chris Wohlforth, Dickey Center Associate Director, and Sadhana Hall, Rockefeller Center Associate Director for Student and Public Programs, led this special session with 22 participants.
Wohlforth began the session with an activity to get participants thinking about what it would feel like to be in a cultural setting different from one’s own. She asked students to jot down an incident that made him/her feel like an outsider. Participants volunteered occasions that made them feel scrutinized, intimidated, distrusted, stereotyped; experienced social exploitation and prejudice; faced the challenge of adjustment; made them see themselves differently. Wohlforth said that in a different cultural setting one can feel a loss of self, nervous at having to “read” cultural cues and conform to cultural “rules.” She asked: What are some strategies for dealing with cultural differences and miscommunication? When we’re in a new cultural environment, we can turn a first impression into a stereotype. The next question was “What makes global leadership distinctive from leadership studies in general?” The study of leadership and management is a primarily Anglo phenomenon. The key to understanding requires skills, values, and context.

Wohlforth focused next on intercultural sensitivity: how one experiences difference. It’s a function of interest in other cultures; sensitivity to notice cultural differences; and willingness to modify behavior as an indication of respect for other cultures. The more sensitive you are, the more you’re able to change your behavior to suit the cultural setting. The degree to which we need to change our behavior depends on whether the setting is multicultural or monocultural. Intercultural sensitivity informs the development of one’s worldview: how one perceives the world and one’s place in it. One’s worldview defines how one feels about people in general. Intercultural sensitivity at its best includes trust and a sense of hope, progress and change. Hall advised, “You need to build trust and respect before being familiar. You have to know what you’re trying to achieve.” Wohlforth added this wisdom: Enthusiasm and sincerity can go a long way towards building trust. Be humble, be able to laugh at your own mistakes.

There are several steps along the intercultural sensitivity continuum. The first is denial, the perception that one’s own culture is the only real one. The second is defense, the belief that one’s own culture is better. Third is minimization, the belief that all cultures are the same at their root. The fourth step is acceptance, recognition that different cultures are equally complex but different. Fifth is adaptation, the ability to shift perspective from one world view to another. The last and highest step is integration, the ability to experience a sense of self in and out of different cultural contexts. Integration is the hardest level to reach, but is attainable if we work hard and are smart enough to see how we fit into the cultural setting and move fluidly within it. Our experiences can bump us up and down along the continuum, even if we’ve reached integration.

Wohlforth offered the following words of wisdom about intercultural sensitivity and knowledge: Cultural knowledge isn't equal to intercultural competence. Neither language proficiency nor exposure can guarantee intercultural competence. Learning from experience is more than being present when big events happen; it emerges from the ability to assess those events and re-assess them as you gather more information, knowledge about them, and the context in which they take place, and over time.

Next, Wohlforth had the participants work on a communication exercise of cross-cultural dialogues. For each dialogue participants were to assess the following: What do you see happening? What message is being sent and/or lost? What cultural clues does the conversation give? What is at stake if the communication/message is lost? Following the participants’ responding to the exercise, Wohlforth said that dialogues can and often do have multiple interpretations. When we put ourselves into different cultural settings, the reactions and interpretations are more complex because of cultural differences (language, personal space, social rules). To communicate successfully one has to understand the environment. Miscommunication happens all the time, even in familiar settings. Cultural miscommunication is that much more difficult because you have to navigate cultural differences.

“What skills do you need to be a successful global leader?” Wohlforth asked next. Participants offered these: adaptability, thoughtfulness, reflection, self-awareness, authenticity, awareness of environment, positive attitude, non-judgmental, effective communicator (both verbally and non-verbally), humor (be able to laugh at yourself). Hall mentioned a Globe Study of 17,000 leaders, which showed that humility, self-awareness, and authenticity as key to being successful in global leadership. Hall added that the doing for others yields success across all cultures. The key to “getting around in the world” is to know yourself and pay attention to others.

Wohlforth suggested that participants should reflect on past intercultural experiences and see them with new eyes, new perspective; to look back on the situations that were shared at the start of the session and ask: Has today’s session changed the way you view that experience? What, if anything, might you do differently?

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