How Culture Can Affect Leadership Development

“You should write on culture! Start with a blog…”

This is how it started… And it got my brain spinning in thousands of directions as there is so much to say!

What is culture? How is it defined? Although there are many definitions or frameworks around it, I have not found a consensus so far.

Culture is a fascinating topic–because it’s always there–in any of your daily interactions with colleagues, family members, and neighbours. If you ignore it, it may well  get you in a delicate or interesting situation.

The Brussels office of the Center for Creative Leadership is a great place to observe culture and its effects. Not only are we truly international in the office (over 20 languages are spoken), but we meet participants from all over the world. So we witness exchanges and (mis)communication, develop unexpected friendships and get a daily education on cultural norms and missteps. And what we don’t see, we hear through stories from others… along with their interpretation that can leave us thoughtful and yearning for more! Here is a story I got from one of my colleagues.

In a leadership program she attended a few weeks ago, a French participant (let’s call him Jules) was puzzled by the concept of leadership. Interestingly enough, there is no French translation for leadership. Although you can explain the “symptoms” of leadership, getting a clear definition is tricky, as it is not part of the language. In the classroom, trainers and participants were moving through program activities. And Jules was struggling with the leadership concepts. He fell into a conversation about what leadership is with a classmate from the Middle East (we’ll call him Ali). My colleague was sitting nearby and following the exchange with some interest. Jules stated that “Leadership is just a small part of management.” Ali answered, “No, leadership is much more than that,” and he went on trying to convey to Jules his view of what leadership entails, how big and important it is and how it can change your life. But Jules did not agree with this perspective and still saw leadership as a management skill needed to be successful at the level of team management. As the program unfolded, Ali truly enjoyed his experience while Jules got more and more perplexed as he could not reconcile what he was discovering with his understanding of leadership. As a result, he disengaged from the program.

Hearing this story, I couldn’t help but wonder about what could have been done differently for Jules so that he could benefit from the full impact of the program. Was there an “easy fix” for this type of disconnect? Can we learn from this story and get better, as individuals and as a company, at reading the early signs of disengagement or at seeing the cues of misunderstanding? When a concept does not register with someone from a particular culture, could it be addressed by just defining what is meant, here and now, for the length of the exercise or the program, so that everyone is on the same page? How can we act on this as a multicultural group–keeping in mind the various sensibilities and perspectives present?

At CCL, we have been looking at this and recognizing the importance of culture and languages for many years, and consequently we have built unique project management and linguistic expertise in the shape of a Global Language Strategy (GLS) Team responsible for handling all language-related projects, keeping in mind the uniqueness of our clients and our field. This is a first step in the right direction as an organization.

Please join me in sharing experiences and documenting best practices of doing leadership development across cultures. By starting a Community of Practice on this subject, we can learn from each other’s experiences and become better at what we do–creating a bigger impact for our clients and our colleagues around the world.

If you would like to share your stories around culture, the mistakes you have made and the lessons you have learned, I’m eager to hear from you. You can reach me via e-mail at

4 thoughts on “How Culture Can Affect Leadership Development

  1. Very interesting. So-called mental models often start with language and phraseology, and it is interesting that Jules may have been lacking – at least during that week – the ability to unlearn so as to relearn. That in itself is a central tenet of leadership!

    The very fact that certain concepts don’t translate well is something to address overtly in training and get participants to explain what ‘untranslatables’ mean in their own tongue.

    Building on this, I once got a Chinese participant to show us the Chinese character for ‘trust’ and explain what it meant. Today I got a French colleague to explain to other Europeans what ‘la débrouillardise’ means in a French organizational context. The English ‘being resourceful’ is a bit tame!

    There is no reason why we couldn’t do the same with he word ‘leadership’ and discuss how we adapt (if at all) what are often anglo concepts into different cultural environments.

    1. Tim,

      Thank you for your insight. I agree that addressing concepts that might be untranslatable in some languages is the right place to start – and by giving everyone a chance to relate to what it means for them, in their own contexts, we take a step toward better understanding.

      As we work with groups that are more and more global, we see this need increase as environments are often very different for participants of a same program.

      As neuro-science progresses, we learn more and more about the impact of language on the way our brains develop and how it shapes our thoughts.

  2. Culture is not about language, ethnicity or even race. Culture is the lens we see the world through that shapes our beliefs and values and behaviors

    The reason that Jules left might have nothing to do with that in French there is no translation for Leadership- the closest in French is “Dirrigeants” which means giving directions – We need to look as Jules as an individual what is his age culture. education culture, his background culture, his socio-economic culture – what made him as individual not enjoying the leadership program not why french people will not follow the program – between the characteristics of Diversity there is the diversity of thoughts – May be something like an exit interview would have helped or looking at data like more French people than others leave the program – just a thought

    1. Sahar,

      You make a great point. Culture is indeed the lens we use to look at the world and each of us has his/her own personal culture that is the result of many factors. And it is true that language is not the only factor that will determine success or failure in a given situation.

      As a global organization, we need to be aware of this and make sure we take culture into the equation when we interact with diverse groups – keeping in mind that current research does indicate that language has a big impact on the way an individual will process (or react to) the information he/she receives.

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