Can leaders employ the same approaches in Beijing, China as they do in Lagos, Nigeria or Chicago, Illinois?

As one who has engaged in a diversity of cultures, this question peeks my curiosity. Because most leadership scholarship arises out of “Western,” Anglo-influenced institutions, the topic solicits great debate. Leadership theory often emulates linear, systematic and direct approaches which stem from ancient Greek philosophy.

Yet, much of today’s world favors a narrative, contextually-nuanced and indirect approach (“Eastern” thinking).

Some years back, several well-known theorists set out to define universal leadership principles, publishing The Quest for a General Theory of Leadership (Goethals & Sorenson 2006). After months of careful exploration and pontification, they essentially conceded that a ‘general theory’ had eluded them. “We can barely agree on what a ‘theory’ is in the first place,” they quipped (p. 49)!

Chart depicting the leadership style of transformational leaders

The authors DID agree, however, that leadership has everything to do with power, influence, change, and context. As such, they seem to suggest that cultural context matters greatly when determining one’s leadership approach.

You’re welcome for saving you $136 for the book, by the way… =)

Based on my [limited] experience around the globe, I would suggest that leadership is highly situational and contextual. While many aspects of humanity may be universal, cultures send and receive information in unique ways. I lead very differently in Rocklin than I do in Nairobi or Tokyo.

Western settings are typically more informal, direct, and individualistic, whereas Eastern contexts are more likely to value formality, indirectness and conformity in their interactions. Thus, I use greater care to respect elders and collective consensus when I lead in Kenya, vs. the U.S.

Perhaps the “way we’ve always done it” may not work in every situation. The apostle Paul supports contextually-based leadership, saying “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, ESV).

How might you adjust your leadership approach to increase effectiveness within a context in which you lead?

Daniel Gluck serves as Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies at Jessup, and Lead Faculty for the B.A. in Christian Leadership program.