Leading with Cultural Intelligence


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In a previous article, we introduced you to Cultural Intelligence (CQ®) and the four capabilities that it consists of: CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge, CQ Strategy, and CQ Action. In this post, we want to identify how these capabilities are applied in leadership roles, both authority-based roles and influence-based roles. We define authority-based leadership as a form of leadership where individuals are empowered to lead through institutional authority to direct the people and resources of a group. We define influence-based leadership as a form of leadership where the ability to direct people and resources comes solely from the individual’s relationships and the trust they’ve built with their colleagues, not from institutional empowerment.

Leadership roles and authority often go hand-in-hand. While it is possible to lead without authority (as we discuss below), people most commonly think of leaders as individuals who have received authority from an organizational hierarchy, an accredited licensure or diploma, or a collective belief system. Regardless of how a leader obtains their authority, leading with that authority has unique cultural challenges due to each culture’s expectations of how a leader should exert that authority.

For some international cultures, there is a specific view of how a leader should portray themselves to their colleagues and those who report to them. This is true for domestic cultures too, as different generations view leaders through specific lenses. Even different companies have unique leadership customs. Using the four CQ capabilities, leaders with high CQ in these roles will use their CQ Drive to learn how they’re being perceived, their CQ Knowledge to understand how these perceptions vary and why, their CQ Strategy to plan out ways to direct and engage people on their level, and their CQ Action to put that into practice, taking stock of outcomes along the way and adapting where they’re falling short. 

Trust varies across cultures. Regardless of job title, an effective leader is someone who understands that relationships can be a powerful tool for influencing others. When you have real, meaningful relationships with colleagues, it’s possible to build trust and understand their personal and professional motivations according to Harvard Business School Online. 

If trust is key to any relationship, then how do you build trust with someone who sees the world through their own cultural lens and experiences? The short answer is with cultural intelligence. Being in-tune with different cultural trust-building norms across countries can go a long way in whether your interactions succeed or fall flat. In fact all four capabilities that we introduced last month are important for making the most of a diverse team, but CQ Knowledge and Strategy are especially critical for building trust. By applying cultural intelligence to my own style as a program manager I’m more aware and flexible to adapt to various situations in a respectful and trust-worthy manner. Moreover, the path I choose to nurture multicultural, domestic and organizational relationships is critical to my role as a PM, a position of influence but without explicit authority. 

To restate a powerful note by David Livermore, Ph.D from his book "The Cultural Intelligence Difference": To improve your cultural intelligence is to embark on seeing the world in a whole new way. It’s at times painful and even fear invoking, but the rewards are well worth it. It’s amazing what happens when we’re willing to move beyond our differences to see one another first and foremost as human beings. Then, from our common bond as humans, we can learn from our differences. That’s the power of CQ. That’s the CQ difference. 

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