Have you ever wondered how people with impressive experience might fail to achieve their goals because of a lack of international competence? Or perhaps you’ve seen how others might be prevented from finishing their project because they can’t create a positive relationship with their colleagues? Or maybe you’ve felt frustrated because your potential is not understood or blocked by resistance? Perceptions and challenges like these are commonplace when working with international counterparts or leading across cultures.
One person who is experiencing some of the challenges of leading across cultures is UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Since his childhood Ban Ki-moon has always struck people for his modesty, competence and perseverance. It is said that in order to practise English he used to regularly walk several miles to reach a farmer who hosted Americans. He attended university in Seoul and Harvard and his diplomatic career started soon after graduation. In short, Mr. Ban’s profile on paper is immaculate, but some of his colleagues at the United Nations do not have an extraordinary opinion of him as a global leader.
Many of Mr. Ban’s American and European colleagues in particular think that his contributions to the UN have been minimal. They also complain that he often becomes an invisible presence in public, especially when compared with his predecessor Kofi Annan. Unfortunately they seem to forget about Mr. Ban’s successful contributions to issues such as global warming and peacekeeping in Darfur, as well as his position regarding the situation in the Gaza bank.
So why do some people have a negative perception of Mr. Ban? Some might suggest that this is caused by his way of operating which tends to be characterised by discretion and personal meetings away from the limelight.
Interestingly, UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information Kiyo Akasaka feels that the core reason for this misunderstanding is the cultural perception of leadership. Mr. Ban is an emblem of Confucian values which are reflected in his modesty and discipline as well as his ability to blend in with the crowd in an attempt to establish harmony. These skills are highly valued in certain cultures, and Mr. Ban is seen as a strong leader in the Far East where Confucian values are most prevalent.
Perceptions and expectations about what a global leader should do or say differ greatly from one culture to another. Many Westerners tend to prefer strong and charismatic leaders who lead by example and show strong beliefs and values. Others from Confucian cultures would instead prefer their leaders to have a strong ability to maintain harmony within the group and avoid boasting or taking all of the credit for an achievement.
Understanding some of the cultural traits evident in Mr. Ban’s cross-cultural leadership style, we can see why his style may be less appreciated by his American and European colleagues. However, employees of the UN, a strong and truly international organisation, should adjust their expectations and try to be objective in their evaluation of UN representatives. Equally, as the leader of an international organisation, Mr. Ban should also adapt his communication and leadership style and be able to adopt a wide range of manners depending on the context in order to appeal to a bigger audience and be better understood and appreciated
Mr. Ban’s example reminds us that anyone leading across cultures must be aware of how cultural values can shape and influence your own and others’ expectations and leadership styles. Cross-cultural training programmes like Leading across Cultures are absolutely imperative for global leaders who must effectively manage and anticipate any cross-cultural barriers that different cultural perspectives can create.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2011