Every Leader Needs To Cross Culture

Ponte Vecchio-Bridge-Cross Cultural

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy

Over the past 35 years I have led many teams into cross cultural settings. Sometimes the trips were for a few days. Sometimes they lasted a couple of months. I have also taken my family to live in another culture for five years. Yet, I am no expert. Living and leading in a cross cultural setting is difficult.

In today’s global economy many business leaders are spending time in other parts of the world. But most run from meeting to meeting and back to the airport. They overcome minor irritations that cultural differences present, but they fail to cross culture.

What does it actually mean to cross culture?

One online business source states that cross culture means “The interaction of people from different backgrounds in the business world. Cross culture is a vital issue in international business, as the success of international trade depends upon the smooth interaction of employees from different cultures and regions.”

This provides us with some sense of definition, but more importantly highlights the necessity for better understanding.

“Cross cultural” can be defined as “involving or bridging the differences between cultures.”

This simple definition does a better job of getting to the heart of the matter.

To be truly successful you have to be able to “involve” and “bridge” the differences.

And that wont happen through a few seminars or training sessions.

To truly cross culture, or arrive at being good at living and leading cross culturally, you need to truly engage the culture. This takes time. You may have to add some days to your business trips. You may need to utilize your vacations differently. You need to create enough space to actually experience the culture outside of your own interests. But if you do, here is what will happen inside of you.

You will notice over time that your attitudes will move from . . .

1. Superiority to humility.  Every person sees their own culture as superior to any other. Writing as an American, we probably take this to an extreme. We have been told inside and outside our borders that we live in the best country in the world. Most of us totally believe in American exceptionalism. And that can cripple us to the ability to “involve” and “bridge.” But if you spend enough time in another country you will begin to see how others view Americans. The “ugly American” syndrome is alive and well. We will begin to see valuable aspects to other cultures, like–relationship over accomplishment, community over individualism, or tradition over efficiency. An attitude of humility may begin to prevail. It is the understanding that we are not superior as a culture. We all bring good and bad into any cross cultural setting. If we will immerse ourselves enough we may find that there are values within the new culture we would choose to embrace warmly. To embrace and adapt well will require humility.

2. Self sufficiency to dependence.  If you remain in a foreign culture for any length of time you will begin to realize your profound deficits. You may not know the language. You might not truly understand how to navigate the city and its transportation system. You are unfamiliar with appropriate greetings, customs, and ways of coming to collaborative agreements. You will need to rely on others to be successful. This requires abandoning your sense of self and being able to ask for help. That can feel like a very vulnerable place to be. But dependence is good. We will become more approachable and accepting of what we don’t know. Dependence does not have to rob you of your initiative. It actually will encourage it at a whole new level.

3. Ignorance to understanding.  It is easy to encounter different cultural elements and declare them bad or wrong. Certainly for Americans we often see other cultures as incredibly inefficient. But again we miss the point. Most cultures around the world have a longer timeline than we do. There is richness, history, and tradition that informs some of these “inefficiencies.” To ignore such cultural variants may be to miss out on deep relationship and effective partnership. It takes a new level of understanding to be a good partner.

What does crossing culture take in practical terms? Seeing, listening, studying, and time. Be curious. Ask questions. Avoid condemnation. Take time. Watch your heart change.

(photo credit)

2 replies
  1. Kurt Kelley
    Kurt Kelley says:

    Not gonna happen. We live in a country and culture, where individualism is king, and to consider common good over self, is to be likened to Communism. And in a country so expansive in space, where one can drive 3000 miles from one end to the other, and be fine with speaking only English, and where food and water and gasoline and electricity are always plentiful, no matter where you go, it is ingrained in us to consider any other culture to be inferior, flawed, or primitive. We have been raised to believe that material prosperity and affluence, automatically means cultural superiority over all others. Which, in turn, produces attitudes that feel there is no need to experience, or even to understand other cultures., “Ours is the best, who cares about the rest.” And that includes the attitude from white suburban culture towards black urban cultures, along with any other non white culture. And it is this attitude that will deter any efforts to break down the racial barriers and conflicts that have been flaring up so frequently in recent times.

    • Gary Runn
      Gary Runn says:

      Kurt, Thanks for your comments. It is challenging to consider that Americans can view life through other lenses. The majority culture view point often does not even understand it’s latent power and authority. To be forced, or to choose, to immerse oneself in another culture–here or abroad–can be a really helpful attitude corrector. But most will never choose to do so. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.


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