Home / Opinion / Leadership is culture-specific

What makes a great leader? Although the core ingredients of leadership are universal (good judgement, integrity and people skills), the full recipe for successful leadership requires culture-specific condiments. The main reason for this is that cultures differ in their implicit theories of leadership. Depending on the cultural context, your typical style and behavioural tendencies may be an asset or a weakness. Research has shown that leaders’ decision-making, communication style and dark-side tendencies are influenced by the geographical region in which they operate. Below we review six major leadership types that illustrate some of these findings.


The synchronized leader. Follow-through is key to being seen as leadership material in regions such as Northeast Asia (e.g., Mainland China, South Korea and Japan), Indonesia, Thailand, the UAE, and much of Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile). In order to ascend the organizational ranks, such leaders must seek consensus on decisions and drive others through a keen process orientation. Business cycles can take longer as a result. But once all stakeholders are on board, the deal needs to close fast or there is risk of jeopardizing the agreement. Synchronized leaders tend to be prudent and are more focused on potential threats than rewards.

The opportunistic leader. Leaders who self-initiate and demonstrate flexibility on how to achieve a goal tend to be more desirable in Germanic and Nordic Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway), the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Asian countries that based their governing and economic institutions on the British model (India, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong). More or less individualistic, these leaders thrive in ambiguity and tend to be ambitious risk takers.

Communication style

The straight-shooting leader. In some regions employees expect their leaders to confront issues straightforwardly. In Northeast Asia and countries like the Netherlands, excessive communication is less appealing in the leadership ranks—people just want you to get to the point. Accordingly, task-oriented leaders are preferred. Straight-shooting leaders tend to be less interpersonally sensitive.

The diplomatic leader. In certain countries communication finesse and careful messaging are important not only to getting along but also to getting ahead. In places like New Zealand, Sweden, Canada and much of Latin America, employees prefer to work for bosses who are able to keep business conversations pleasant and friendly. Leaders in these locations are expected to continuously gauge audience reactions during negotiations and meetings. Diplomatic leaders tend to be polite and agreeable.

Dark-side tendencies

The “kiss up/kick down" leader. When organizations emphasize rank, emerging leaders tend to develop unique coping skills. It is a leader’s job to implement mandates from above with lower-level employees. If overused, this strength can lead to a “kiss up/kick down" leadership style, characterized by excessive deference or sudden attention to detail when reporting up, and issuing fiery directives or refusing to compromise when commanding subordinates. Though never a good thing, this derailer is tolerated more in Turkey, India, the UAE, Serbia, Greece, Kenya and South Korea.

The passive-aggressive leader. Some leaders become cynical, mistrusting and covertly resistant, particularly under stress. Leaders with this style are more widely accepted in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it doesn’t seem to impede their advancement. Passive-aggressive leaders tend to be critical and resentful. Ironically, their aversion to conflict often generates more conflict.

To be sure, it is possible for any individual to adjust their leadership style to fit the relevant context. However, it requires a great deal of effort to go against one’s natural tendencies and predispositions, and habits are hard to break. It is also important to take into account the culture of the organization, which requires a much more granular level of analysis to identify the qualities that promote and inhibit success. When senior leaders succeed, they often redefine culture in a way that is a direct reflection of their own personality. Thus culture is mostly the sum of the values and beliefs of influential past leaders.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the chief executive officer of Hogan Assessment Systems, a professor of business psychology at University College London and a faculty member at Columbia University. Michael Sanger is an industrial/organizational psychologist and senior strategist in the Global Alliance division of Hogan Assessment Systems.

©2016 Harvard Business Review. All rights reserved.

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