Leadership in a flat world 

“Globalization is here to stay. Many of us who have dealt with offshore partners have lived through many challenging leadership situations and have many stories to share. In one of my consulting engagements a client executive challenged me to explain cultural differences between East and West by simplifying it into one sentence. While it is a daunting task to compress all of the diversity in thinking, actions and approaches of people into one sentence, the first thing that came to mind was how each culture defines individuality. In the West, individuality is literally about an individual, whereas in the East, individuality is identified with a group.

“A recent survey that targeted people of East and West origins showed a picture of a school of fish and asked people to identify its leader. The results made a surprising revelation. Most people from the East identified fish toward the end of the pack as the leader while people from the West identified fish at the front of the pack as the leader.

“The survey, in essence, uncovered the way accountability is established in Eastern and Western cultures. It goes without saying that in the West it is quite common to treat a leader as one who leads from the front, leads by example and takes personal accountability for the success or failure of the team. Whereas in the East, a leader is viewed more as a shepherd who cares for the whole pack from behind. This leader makes sure the group stays as a whole and moves in the direction he or she needs to take it. In other words, accountability is often shared amongst the group. While it is important to hold people accountable for their actions, oftentimes it is the collective identity that you need to address, to get the most out of the team.

“Next time you talk to your partner in India or China…remember the fish.”

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