Culture and Leadership

Study Unit Aims

• Organisational and National culture – explore own assumptions and values in context

• Cross-cultural leadership – understand current theories and research

• GLOBE project – an overview of a ‘typical’ cross-cultural leadership study

• Critical Review and evaluation of cross-cultural studies

“[The] ability to perceive the limitations of one’s own culture and to develop the culture adaptively is the essence and ultimate challenge of leadership.”

Edgar Schein (1992)

Where does organisational culture come from?

• Societal or National culture in which the organisation is situated

• Vision, personality and style of the founder or dominant leader

• Type of business the organisation conducts and its business environment

Diversity of Cultures

(Schein 1985)

• Managerial vs. worker cultures

• Occupation based cultures in functional units

• Departmental cultures

• Geographically based group cultures

Organisational Culture

Organisational culture:

• ‘The collection of relatively uniform and enduring values, beliefs, customs, traditions and practices that are shared by an organisation’s members, learned by new recruits, and transmitted from one generation of employees to the next’

Buchanan & Huczynski (2004)

Impact of Leadership

• View of leader will affect the mission/vision of organisation

• Strong leaders include Henry Ford, Cadbury brothers, Jack Welch, Richard Branson

• Organisations may outgrow their leaders and become associated with dominant members, for example, Lee Iacocca at GM

Levels of Culture and their Interaction

Leadership and Culture

Primary mechanisms for culture embedding and reinforcement:

1. What leaders pay attention to, measure and control.

2. Leader reactions to critical incidents and crises.

3. Deliberate role modelling, teaching, coaching by leaders.

4. Criteria for recruitment, selection, promotion, retirement, dismissal.

Typology of Culture Harrison/Handy Typology (1985)

Alvesson (2011): a critical view on Schein

• Too leader-centric – context within which leader is working is far more complex, shifting and outside his/her control

• Followers’ views and values are only marginally shaped by leader’s actions – other influences are:

–Society, industry, occupation, generation, work situation etc.

• Leader’s role within a group is far more symbolic in nature and relational, co-constructing a cultural orientation with followers 

Leaders as meaning-makers (Smircich and Morgan, 1982)

• Leaders as co-creators of organisational culture through symbolic activities

• Leaders are influenced by an existing culture and influence the culture through social interactions with followers

The importance of national culture 

• Leadership is contextual – socially constructed over time and national culture is a key feature of context

• Definition by Hofstede (1980)

the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category from another

• With globalisation and new communication technologies we cannot escape interacting with and leading people from other cultures – but how? (Yukl, 2006)

National Culture – Hofstede (1980, 2001)

• National culture dimensions:

–Uncertainty Avoidance

–Power distance



–Time orientation

Cross-cultural leadership

• Leadership as a cultural activity

−Leadership is an interactional process and “suffused with values, beliefs, language, rituals and artefacts” (Alvesson, 1993)

−Manager grow up in a particular culture and may not be conscious of own value set (Yukl, 2006)

−Cultural norms determine acceptable behaviour within cultures (group, department, organisation, industry, country etc.)

−Managers working across culture need to be aware and it is expected of them to manage such relations

• Implicit Leadership Theory (Lord and Maher, 1991)

−Leadership exists only in the ‘eye of the beholder’

−A manager is only perceived and accepted as a leader if his/her behaviour/qualities are congruent with follower expectations

−Factors of influence: situation, national culture, capitalist system etc.

GLOBE project (House et al., 2004)

• Culture dimensions and leadership styles – a development of previous models:

−Culture Dimensions: uncertainty avoidance, power distance, institutional collectivism, in-group collectivism, gender egalitarianism, assertiveness, future orientation, performance orientation, humane orientation

−Leadership Styles: charismatic, team-oriented, participative, humane-oriented, autonomous, self-protective


• Found 10 culture clusters and compared leadership styles ‘as is’ and ‘desired’ within and between the clusters

• Further found universally desired and negative leadership attributes

• This project has aided significantly the advancement of multi-cultural understanding of leadership

• To date the most successful and widest quantitative study

Some critical views on GLOBE (Jepson, 2009)

• Methodological Approach

–Problems of the ‘standardised questionnaire’

–Cannot explore or discover behaviour – can only confirm and categorise

–Reality is simplified – cannot capture interaction and dynamic processes

–Lack of representative sample to make generalisation across a whole country/culture (measuring middle managers’ perceptions)

• Measure of national culture

–Over-simplified conceptualisation of the national context – what about regions, immigrants etc.?

–Cultures are changing, so the results can only ever offer a snap-shot of a culture

• Use of language

–Dangerous to treat language as a neutral tool

–Language as a cultural voice Meaning of words changes between national languages, organisational and occupational jargon – silencing of social groups

National Culture – Geertz (1973)

• Culture as a thick description – an interpretive, anthropological approach

• Doing an ethnography of a culture to engage in a deep and rich understanding of the ‘webs’ that hold individuals together

–Thick description to understand the complex structure of a culture rather than reporting on its superficial appearance

–Our understanding of any culture is always our construction of other people’s constructions

–Uncovering the emic = what is meaningful to an actor through this individual’s eyes

–Awareness of the interpretation of the researcher

An alternative, interactional approach (Jepson, 2009)

• Leadership as an outcome of social interaction between individuals and contexts  – leading to very subjective, individual meanings of leadership and importance of national origin

Worldliness in Leadership and Language

• Gosling and Mintzberg (2003)

– The 5 minds of a manager – reflective, analytical, collaborative, action and worldly

– Worldly manager is somebody who is devoted to the temporal world and experienced in human affairs

– It is also somebody who is aware of not only his/her own but also other’s belief sets, values and able to interpret and understand different behaviours and attitudes

• Jepson (2010)

– Language as cultural voice

– Impact on how we research into leadership across countries and how we develop leaders

– Calls for emic approaches (looking out from the inside)


• Leadership is a highly contextual phenomenon – national culture is one of the many contextual influences a leader faces

• It is important to be reflexive about one’s own and followers’ cultural assumptions on leadership

• Some of the most well-known conceptualisations of national culture are those by Hofstede and Geertz

• Cross-cultural studies of leadership have been largely based on Implicit Leadership Theories and have shown by and large that national culture influences leadership styles

• The GLOBE project is the largest and most recent cross-cultural study into leadership and has resulted in many publications

• Adopting Geertz’ thick descriptions approach to national culture challenges the generalisability of cross-cultural studies such as the GLOBE project

• We need to be careful not to fall into leadership stereotypes but in a globalised business world to understand diversity beyond national borders