Cultural Intelligence:The Key To Global Leadership

We live and work in a world that is an integrated entity, increasingly influenced by external cultural factors. For those in leadership positions, it is now not only necessary to have a high IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence), but strong Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is also increasingly regarded as a necessary skill to succeed in today’s global business community.

Leadership entails communicating a vision and influencing others towards a goal; achieving this across cultures is no easy feat. Defining the characteristics that make a good leader can be daunting. Much of the research and information we are exposed to about this topic is US, or at least Western focused, where leadership skills tend to be measured by organizational performance such as productivity and morale. Nevertheless, universally there are basically two types of leadership – task oriented and relationship oriented. People from different cultures react differently to these styles. In addition, leadership quality, as with charisma, is often about perception; a person perceived as a leader will gain respect, power and authority. Indeed, we may say that it is the followers who determine a leader’s greatness. Successful global leaders understand how leadership is viewed in other cultures, and how the expectations of culturally diverse followers influence leadership behavior.

Let’s look at three ways leaders can demonstrate cultural intelligence.

Building awareness

Culturally intelligent leaders are open to knowledge and develop new skills to help them succeed. This means understanding the cultural attributes of the followers and what their expectations are. These attributes can be in a number of areas such as the relationship between the leaders and their followers, what role seniority plays, how problems are handled, and attitudes towards efficiency, punctuality and deadlines. Often tradition will prevail over logic, so it is important for the global leader to learn about the history and values of the followers’ culture. This may be achieved by developing alliances with other leaders from different cultural backgrounds, who can provide different perspectives for comparison.


Culturally intelligent leaders are comfortable in adapting their behavior to suit different circumstances without changing their inherent leadership style. With stronger awareness they can determine whether, for example, their followers are from an individualistic versus a collectivist culture, whether they work better in an autocratic versus a bureaucratic environment, whether they are motivated by incentives versus punishment, whether they respond to an informal versus formal approach, etc. Successful global leaders spend time with their followers to understand their comfort level, and listen to what is said and not said.


Culturally intelligent leaders understand that the way they communicate is critical to their success. Once they are aware of the cultural attributes of their followers and have adapted to their environment, it will be easier to tweak their communication style accordingly. Apart from the obvious need to use clear language, this may also mean determining how much information needs to be imparted in order to achieve the required goal, and what the consequences and/or rewards are for the followers. It also means adjusting communication styles to take into account whether the follower’s culture is one that exhibits an implicit rather than explicit manner, as well as non-verbal communication traits.

To summarize, whether a leader’s style is task oriented or relationship oriented, he or she can work towards increasing their cultural intelligence by applying the three steps above. By being aware of the cultural attributes of their followers, adapting to the cultural environment and communicating accordingly, leaders are more likely to achieve success. There is no doubt that a healthy dose of CQ is an indispensable asset for today’s global leader.

Guest post by Zintro expert Nerella Campigotto

President, Boomerang Consulting Inc.

Zintro has experts in every industry sector, across every job function, in every geographic region. Recently, some of the following topics have seen inquiry activity: