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Op/Ed

What exploring other cultures can teach us about leadership

There are those who enjoy “being in leadership” and then, there are those that are more interested in actually leading. Let’s break it down.

leadership shown in meeting

I don’t believe in leadership… really!

In my experience, more often than an example of someone exhibiting a worthy strategy for advancing the goals of an individual or group, I’ve found “leadership” to be a buzzword translating roughly to a skeevy sales pitch that sounds something along the lines of: “Concerned you lack both ideas and skills? Don’t worry! Here are social strategies you can use so no one will notice your absence of merit until it is far, far too late.”

At best, it’s a marketing term used to take advantage of insecure people who actually do have good ideas or solid skills.

At worst, and let’s be honest here; when I wrote my little screed about leadership, how many of you immediately had a face and/or name of someone in mind?

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Possibly more than one, even?

It’s OK.

This is a safe space.

Egalitarianism and hierarchy

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to come across a piece on leadership with real value.

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Over at the Harvard Business Review, Erin Meyer has built a useful metric for leadership styles. Her purpose is to establish the different expectations that exist for business leaders in multiple cultures (though the metric is applicable as a trans-cultural concept as well).

The two axes of her graph are “egalitarianism” and “hierarchy.”

“Egalitarianism” tracks the degree to which employees expect involvement in the decision-making process.

“Hierarchy” reflects the degree to which employees defer judgment (and responsibility) to their organizational superiors: think top-down vs. bottom-up.

The intersection of the two creates four strong categories, all of which need to be in a good leader’s repertoire, which I’ve listed for you below:

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High egalitarianism: top-down

I start with this one because I’m from the USA, and this is us. American employees on the whole expect to be involved in decision-making, especially when the decisions involve them.

That said, for all our open-plan offices and open-door policies, let’s be real: we’re a top-down bunch. Ultimate responsibility still rests with El Jefe, who makes the call and takes the consequences thereof.

In that environment, employees (should) get input, but once the call is made, they’re expected to go along with the decision and adjust to its consequences. A good leader in this setting makes sure everyone is involved in the process.

The cutoff in responsibility that occurs when the decision is made can lead to discontent if an employee feels insufficiently involved since they’re expected to live with the consequences of a decision they don’t feel they were part of. Conversely, depending too much on employee input can give employees an impression of “weakness” on the part of the leader.

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Low egalitarianism: top-down

By the heading, this probably sounds like the widely admired “Do What I Say, peon…” approach to leadership.

It isn’t, really.

Rather, it reflects a different distribution of responsibility, one that places a distinction between decision making, which is seen as the sole responsibility of the designated leader, and implementation, which is what the employees are for.

Meyer memorably cites an American company working with a Chinese one in which the management was shocked to learn their egalitarian management style had led to them being perceived as not just incompetent, but arrogant, since what they saw as open-minded suggestion-box management, their Chinese employees perceived them as failing to do their jobs, then acting as if they’d done their employees a favor. Meyer also sorts major business cultures like Russia and Brazil into this category.

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Obviously, in a setting like this, a responsible leader has to make clarity a priority. The process is vital: here’s where your responsibilities fall, here’s where my responsibilities fall. In addition, obviously, no leader can function without input.

Incorporating contributory opportunities into a rigorous decision-making process avoids misplaced egalitarianism while still involving workers with the changes that will affect their lives.

High egalitarianism: bottom-up

It’s a decision by debate, more or less. In this environment, the leader does less “leading” in the “buzzword” sense and more facilitating, encouraging everyone involved with the decision and likely to deal with its consequences to make their voice heard.

Meyer notes that this tends to be the decision-making process that takes the longest (go figure), but also one that can lead to high employee morale and a clear sense of involvement.

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A successful leader in this setting does their best work making sure every view is heard and, as decision-making time nears, everyone is on board.

Good news for would be leaders: this business culture is characterized by the least pushback after a decision is made.

Low egalitarianism: bottom-up

This is characteristic of business cultures where high regard for formal authority interacts with an involved, informed, worker culture.

Authority still rests with the person at the top of the perceived structure, but the decision itself is made in groups, with the authority figure implementing and taking responsibility for the decision reached by consensus.

This can be a tough environment for would-be leaders, combining as it does a high degree of responsibility with comparatively little control. The best leadership strategy in this setting is a “first among equals” approach, guiding discussion without dominating it and taking responsibility, and exerting influence when making the decision and managing its consequences.

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Erin Meyer’s work is a masterclass of serious assessment of leadership in the workplace. It’s an analysis, as well as a how-to, and repays a close look by anyone who is less interested in “being a leader” and more interested in actually leading.

Written By

Matt Salter is a writer and former fundraising and communications officer for nonprofit organizations, including Volunteers of America and PICO National Network. He’s excited to put his knowledge of fundraising, marketing, and all things digital to work for your reading enjoyment. When not writing about himself in the third person, Matt enjoys horror movies and tabletop gaming, and can usually be found somewhere in the DFW Metroplex with WiFi and a good all-day breakfast.

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