As it turns out, what you consider to be a strong, effective leader in your country may have its roots in the distant past, with civilizations such as the empire-building Romans and seafaring Norse. The Local spoke with two experts at the prestigious ESCP Business School to find out about such differences – and learn about a 21st Century model for better leadership.
With six campuses in six major European cities, cultural diversity and awareness is crucial to the learning experience at ESCP.
The cultural roots of consensus seeking versus dominant leaders
Should a manager use direct communication with employees or let people read between the lines? Should they be a bold decision-maker or carefully build consensus? If you think there’s a simple answer to these questions, think again.
The answer is likely to depend on where you live and work. Some of the biggest differences are between more ‘horizontal’ societies (such as Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe) and cultures that prefer clear hierarchies (such as in Italy, Spain, and East Asia).
The globalized business world can be a maze to navigate for managers and employees alike. But national differences in terms of what we expect from managers have deep cultural roots that go back thousands of years, says Professor Justin Byrne. Based at the Madrid campus, he teaches intercultural skills on ESCP’s Bachelor in Management (BSc) and some of its Masters courses.
Expectations of a more level workplace environment in Sweden, Denmark and Norway stem not just from the post-war love of social democracy but from “the Vikings being an egalitarian culture”. In countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, he says expectations of strong individual leadership can be “related back to the Romans”. And in China, Japan and South Korea, Confucius’s ideas about roles, rules and responsibilities, remain highly influential 2,500 years after his death.
Lead on your own or listen to all?
These complexities mean the very things that make someone a good manager in some cultures make them utterly unsuitable in others, says Professor Byrne, who has lived in the UK, Spain, Italy, the US and Ecuador. Such differences are explained by models such as the ‘power distance’ index element of Hofstede Insights and in American author Erin Meyer’s book ‘The Culture Map.’
“In more hierarchical countries, managers are expected to take decisions as leaders and have answers,” says Professor Byrne. “The difference in their status and authority is manifested in how they dress, how the office is set up, and how, when and what they communicate.
“In less hierarchical societies, a leader is more of a facilitator. In Denmark, it’s great if the manager turns up on a bicycle as it shows they’re like everybody else. In China, if a manager doesn’t look the part, it’s bad not just for them but for everybody.”
Culture clashes are also common within Europe. “It wouldn’t work for a Danish manager to come to Spain and expect people to express their individual opinions and have them taken into account,” he says.
So, what of his students on the Bachelor in Management (BSc)? Professor Byrne says many have lived in several countries, speak three or four languages and start off “sceptical about national differences”.
“We show there’s clear evidence that they’re still relevant and that cultural values change rather slowly despite changes in behaviour and consumption patterns,” he says.
“We live in a globalized world where you can expect national cultures to be less homogeneous. That said, I’d maintain that there are still significant variations in national attitudes that are relevant in work and management.”
Total leadership: finding ‘four-way wins’
Wherever your notion of a good boss originated, following a fast-paced career can leave you struggling to reconcile your ambitions at work with your personal life. It may seem almost impossible to achieve success and still be the person you want to be in your working and home life.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Professor Carlos Casanueva. As well as teaching finance at ESCP, he has been working to develop the practice of ‘Total Leadership’ in Europe since 2008.
While we increasingly hear talk of the need for work-life balance, Professor Casanueva says Total Leadership has a different perspective. “It’s not about equilibrium,” he says. “It’s about synergies and harmony. If you do the right thing, you grow in all areas.”
He says the most important concept in the philosophy is four-way wins. This refers to acting in a way that enables you to achieve wins at work, at home, in your community, and for yourself. Three key principles must be followed: be real (acting with authenticity about what’s important); be whole (acting with integrity by respecting the whole person); and be innovative (acting with creativity by continually experimenting).
“Some people destroy their personal life because it makes sense for their professional life,” says Professor Casanueva. “I’ve been very clear since I was 18 that my personal life was more important than my professional life. I always wanted to be ethical. Plenty of people were the opposite and were very successful.”
But now he says Total Leadership principles are warmly welcomed in diverse cultures, as well as by students on the ESCP Bachelor in Management whenever he mentions the concept. “Human beings are very similar in the wiring of our brains,” he says.
Training for cross-cultural careers
While that wiring unites people everywhere, our cultural expectations do clearly differ. If you’re pursuing or planning an international career, you’ll face considerable challenges as a result.
But studying at an institution that promotes cross-cultural understanding could prove hugely helpful – and ESCP stands out in this regard. Students on the Bachelor in Management (BSc) can study in three cities in three years, from Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid and Turin. “If ESCP has a USP, it’s the cross-cultural dimension,” says Professor Byrne.