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

RLF Reflection: Leadership Across Cultures

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For the asynchronous cohort week of November 13th, Byul “B” Ha gave a detailed presentation on cross-cultural communication. Her presentation, delivered over the internet, began with a series of questions designed to demonstrate to the audience the relevance of cross-cultural communication in an ever-globalized world. Next, B set the scene by defining what “culture” is— “a system of behavior that helps us act in an accepted or familiar way”—and what defines cross-cultural leadership as an independent school of leadership theory.

B argues that cross-cultural leadership is all about taking extra steps to create cultural knowledge and understanding in your organization. One point she made was particularly salient; a cross-cultural leader is able to create synergy among individuals from different cultural backgrounds. It is not enough to just be open-minded, or at least to believe that you are open-minded. B described a general model of the transition from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism, and that model is applicable to different organizational contexts and scales, speaking to the importance of cross-cultural leadership as a central point in leadership studies.

We rarely believe ourselves to be ignorant. We never really doubt ourselves and our leadership in terms of their justness and inherent anti-racism, because the modern American education system has convinced us that the different colors of the faces in our 8th-grade social studies textbooks are demonstrable proof that we have been exposed to Americans of all creeds and colors and therefore do not need to examine further what inherent biases we hold or what assumptions we make about the people we interact with.

It’s not only a function of being polite and respectful, cross-cultural communication skills can make or break important cross-cultural tasks. I wrote a paper for my government class about Russia and China growing their strategic partnerships through joint naval exercises—the problem being that the Russians didn’t speak enough Chinese and the Chinese didn’t speak enough Russian so the main language of communication had to be English, a second language for both countries’ sailors! This vignette demonstrates the value of cross-cultural communication and leadership skills; if sailors from both countries knew more of the others’ language, it would streamline the collaborative effort at the exercise and help both groups improve.

Successful leaders and partnerships that span cultures are rooted in mutual respect and a desire for understanding. The most successful leaders will leverage the diversity of cross-cultural relationships, while the least successful will fail to recognize the value inherent in having more cooks in the proverbial, cross-cultural kitchen.


-Written by Bobby Hobart, Class of 2021 Rockefeller Leadership Fellow 

As Rockefeller Leadership Fellows, seniors gain a better understanding of the qualities and responsibilities expected of leaders. As Fellows take part in the workshops, discussions, and team-building exercises, they examine their skills, qualities, and attributes as leaders and analyze how these influence teamwork and achieving goals. 

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