Assessing the Dialectic in the Academic Literature Between Culturally-Dependent and Universal Leadership Attributes

by Dwight Stirling

Research on global leadership has focused in recent years on situational determinants of leadership, a thread of inquiry aimed at elucidating contextualized approaches effective in one culture or another (Hanges, 2016). Toward this end, researchers have sought to study which styles, competencies, and traits have the most profound results in diverging cultures, regionalizing the global landscape in order to assess particular countries or collections of countries, the specific cultural markers examined in isolation from other cultures or countries in the vicinity. Using the contextualized approach, researchers studying global leadership have divided cultures into various subgroups, using, for instance, the manner in which a culture divides power between its governmental authority and general population as a point of distinction. High power distance societies are distinguished from low power distance societies as a result of the contextualized methodology, the former consisting of autocratic governments where power is delivered in a top-down manner, with the latter consisting of more democratic cultures, ones where those who govern and the governed interact regularly, meaningfully, and across a variety of dimensions (Zeynep, 2013).

The emphasis on what makes global leaders successful in particular regions or cultures has tended to obscure a related goal of the academic literature, namely, the identification of universal traits exhibited by global leaders regardless of culture, region, or situation. Some may contend in fact that the search for culturally contingent leadership attributes has directed attention away from the search for universal leadership attributes. The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) is an example of the regional approach, a more-than-twenty-year study into how, why, and in what ways national culture directly and indirectly influences leadership behaviors through the expectations of societies (Dorfman, 2012). While a limited amount of GLOBE’s scholarly bandwidth is expended in ecumenical inquisitions, its primary thrust is directed toward finding cross-cultural leadership differences.

This paper explores the dialectic in the literature between extrapolating culturally dependent components of leadership and revealing world-wide, unifying traits. The paper seeks to shed light on the tension between the competing lines of inquiry, an inherent push and pull creating both areas of conflict and sectors of agreement between the two approaches. In so doing, the leading theoretical models are considered from a global perspective, including transformational leadership, paternalistic leadership, and participative leadership. Why are collectivistic and hierarchical cultures such as those in Asia and the Middle East receptive to more authoritarian leadership models whereas individualistic societies in North America and Western Europe see higher indices of transformational and empowering leadership? What implications do these insights have on pinpointing those dimensions of leadership which are not cultural-specific? These types of questions receive due consideration.

How Cultural Markers Affect Theoretical Models of Leadership

The GLOBE project introduced what it called the “culturally endorsed theory of leadership” (CLT), an acronym which encompasses both a leadership theory and the specific attributes of that theory (Dorfman, 2012). Built on implicit leadership theory (ILT), CLT considers how societal and organizational culture shape the ILT of a society’s stakeholders. For example, in countries with high power distance values such as Russia and Iran, children are taught from their early childhoods to respect their fathers, the patriarch being the family unit’s unquestioned authority figure in the culture (Dorfman, 2012). Transference of an adolescent’s reverence toward his father to governmental leaders is a natural occurrence, a seamless evolution wherein mayors, governors, and presidents, as well as corporate chief executive officers, take the place of the father, assuming the unfettered respect and admiration as adolescents metastasize into adults, illustrative of the principle that the child begets the man.

As a consequence of the family dynamic of collectivistic cultures, the ILT in Russia, Iran, and other high power distance society contains elements of authoritarianism and paternalism (Hanges, 2016). Not surprisingly, the members of these societies expect their leaders to dispense orders without consideration for the members’ preferences and without prior coordination with the members, while also being tolerant of a leadership style where civic and corporate leaders’ interest in their subordinates exceed conventional boundaries. It is not unusual in high power distance societies for leaders to create a family work environment, taking active roles in subordinates’ non-work activities, a theory premised on a the bargain of fatherly care and meddling in exchange for loyalty, order, and high performance. The GLOBE project’s research on cultural determinants of leadership found support for the correlation between culture and leadership schema content, a theory first hypothesized by Shaw (Dorfman, 2012).

Another by-product of the scholarly inquiries into contextualized leadership attributes is the theory that cultural values function as predictors of leadership expectations. ILT has been shown to have application beyond the individual level, extending to the organizational and natural culture level of analysis (Bealer, 2014). In this way, cultural values have been shown to “predict” the theoretical model of leadership most effective in a particular culture. Societies which have high performance oriented values, for instance, respond best to leaders exhibiting charisma and independence, expecting leaders to allow foster widespread participation in planning and administering activities instead of being limited to lower levels of engagement. Accordingly, researchers have found convergence between the cultural values of performance orientation and charismatic and participative leadership.

Some of the most interesting findings stemming from research into regionalized leadership theory pertain to the correlation between national culture and leadership behavior. Contrary to expectations, the former is not a predictor of the latter. Researchers with the GLOBE project found that “national culture values does not directly predict CEO leadership behavior,” concluding instead that “national culture values are antecedent values which influence leadership expectations” (Dorfman, 2012, 510). Rather, it was found that leaders behave consistent with a society’s idealized leadership, that is its culturally endorsed leadership theory (CLT), is a predictor of the attributes exhibited by leaders in a particular society. In a society such as Germany which desires participatory leadership, CEOs, elected officials, and other managers tend to act in a participatory manner. Similarly, in higher autonomous areas such as Eastern Europe, leaders manifest the corresponding characteristics, a demonstration of the axiom that leaders generally act in accordance with the expectations of those being led.

Universally Desirable Leadership Attributes and Dimensions

Standing in contrast to the strain of literature outlining situational leadership attributes is the subset of literature striving to identify universally desirable qualities. The dialectic between the specific and the ecumenical forms a kind of hinge, fastening two disparate yet related subjects of scholarly inquiry. Divorcing itself from a specific location or region, the identification of universal leadership qualities attempts to equip global leaders with a collection of attributes they can take with them anywhere, employing with confidence regardless of whether the society is collectivist or individualistic, high power distance or low power distance (Martin, 2013). Demonstration that there are qualities which are not culturally specific would represent a significant aid to all types of leaders, whether operating at the non-governmental organization level or the multi-national corporate level.

Before considering the findings, it is first important to describe the six theoretical models most commonly encountered on an international scale. The first is paternalistic leadership, a theoretical model characterized by the creation of a family work environment, where close, personal relationships are established and where superiors frequently are involved in both work and non-work aspects of subordinates’ lives (Aycan, 2006). The second theoretical model is transformational leadership, an approach possessing the markers of individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, and idealized influence. Transformational leaders aspire to change their subordinates’ behavior is positive, significant ways, the interaction have a net effect of personal growth, improved circumstances, and self-actualization. The third leadership theory is nurturant-task leadership, a style of leadership which blends task-orientation, discipline, toughness, and personalization. The nurturant approach revolves around the subordinates personal relationship with the superior, working hard not in order to achieve the objective, but instead to maintain a personalized relationship with the superior (Sinha, 1995).

The fourth model is participative leadership, a construct founded on a joint problem solving approach where leaders and followers conspire together, blurring the lines between authority figure and worker bee. Authoritarian leadership, the fifth model, places power firmly at the top of the hierarchy, orders given with little tolerance for discussion, input, or collaboration. The touchstones of the authoritarian approach to leadership are a clear command and control structure, the unwavering obedience to orders, and strict operational discipline. The sixth and final theoretical model of leadership is vertical collectivism. Combining high power distance with collectivism, this approach “is based on hierarchical structures of power and on moral and cultural conformity” (Triandis, 2002).

The GLOBE project found that of the 112 leadership attributes it identified, 22 were rated as universally desirable, earning positive scores in every society assessed. The attributes garnering the highest ratings were trustworthy, just, and honest. The GLOBE researchers found that “ideal leaders are expected to develop a vision, inspire others, and create a successful performance oriented team within their organizations while behaving with honesty and integrity (508)”.

While the GLOBE project is the most extensive examination of cross-cultural leadership, other studies have assessed the most effective way for a leader to behave when his followers come from diverse cultures. Indeed, steering a pluralistic group is referred to as “global leadership,” the process of achieving a common purpose with persons of diverse, asymmetrical backgrounds, ethnicities, and nationalities (Hanges, 2016). Globalization has ignited the interest in global leadership, the narrowing of distance between peoples and cultures created by competition, technological innovations, and cross-national business enterprises. As a result of globalization, there has been an increase in ambiguity, complexity, and diversity in the work environment. Followers in pluralistic organizations have different expectations of leaders than those in homogenous organizations, differences which suggest that a good leader must change styles to meet individual member’s cultural expectations.

Yet the literature on global leadership does not favor leaders changing attributes like a chameleon changes colors. Instead, it indicates that there is a common core of competencies, universal characteristic exhibited regardless of culture, organization, or the composition of the followers. “Global leaders need to manage interpersonal relationships by being interpersonally engaged, interested in their social environment, and emotionally intelligent” (Hagnes, 2016). Researchers have identified the traits of tolerance of ambiguity, self-confidence, optimism, and emotional resilience as universally salient, traits with allow leaders agility and dexterity with regard to resolving conflicts and reducing tensions between culturally diverse groups.

The resultant feature of utilizing these competencies is what the literature refers to as a “global mindset.” Mental processes, mindsets are the way people interpret and conduct themselves in particular situations. With a global mindset, a leader is predisposed to mediate between and across culturally diverse situations, moderating strategic realities which invariably crop up when a leader’s subordinates are geographically spread out, pluralistic, and heterogeneous. Sometimes referred to as a “cosmopolitan outlook,” the global mindset has been shown to increase one’s cognitive complexity, the ability to maintain two or more perspectives on a topic in mind at the same time. Cognitive complexity “facilitates leaders’ ability to switch from local to global mindsets as the situation demands,” a skill which increases cultural agility (Aycan, 2013).


The two divergent threads of global leadership research represented by situational analysis and identification of universal traits create a fascinating dialectic, a conflict in the literature that students and professionals alike must moderate in order to get the most out of each component. While it is important to understand the lessons from the two approaches, it is equally important to be able to move back and forth between them, showing the cognitive complexity present in the most capable global leaders. Without the constant lens adjustments, a leader will be inclined to capitulate to parochialism, a narrow, culturally constrained viewpoint that hamstrings one in the attainment of the cognitive dexterity of the global mindset.




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