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Transcultural Leadership

Authors: Simons, F. George, Vazquez, Carmen and Harris R. Philip
Copyright: ©1993
Publishers: Gulf Publishing Company. Houston, TX
Book Review by: Cathy Bernatt

Transcultural Leadership

What happens when a person from one culture interacts, lives or works with a person from a completely different culture? Let us first define culture. Culture is "a way of life...consists of ideas, habits, attitudes, customs and tradition that help to create standards for people to coexist. It makes a group of people unique." (Simons, Vazquez & Harris, p. 16.) Culture is ethnocentric by nature. Given that culture makes people unique and is ethnocentric by nature, the answer to the above question will depend on each person's expectations and understanding of the other, the degree of sensitivity and openness to one another's differences, the mode of communication used by each, their individual status in their own culture, etc. Transcultural Leadership shows us how to manage effectively across cultures.

Our goal in a multicultural world should not be assimilation, but acculturation. By acculturating, or learning to understand other cultures while maintaining one's own cultural identity, we can thrive in new cultures. The authors describe four stages we typically pass through in acculturating to a new culture. Stage one is emotional excitement at the newness of it all. This is followed by a period of frustration, anger and depression as we encounter differences in ways things are done in our own culture. In stage three, we begin to acknowledge real differences. The final stage is learning how to utilize our differences to collaborate and produce new results. I have experienced these stages during in my time in Japan.

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When I first arrived in Japan nine years ago, everything was exciting, everyday a new adventure. I had just turned thirty. The last ten years prior to coming to Japan, my personal learning had focused on becoming more and more direct in my communication with others. Being Canadian and from a loosely knit culture, that was the path to success. I was now in a tightly woven society and was to learn some new, very powerful lessons about communication in this culture. Three weeks after coming here, I participated in a 7-day Outward Bound Leadership Training Course with six Japanese participants. The feedback I received on the final day from one of the male Japanese participants, I will never forget. He said he had never met anybody who was so honest and direct in his or her communication. "You say whatever you feel from your heart. I admire you very much. But I am very worried that you may insult Japanese people without knowing it." I couldn't understand deeply the wisdom of his words then. Today, I think I can much more! Interacting with people from many different cultures in my work as the International Program Coordinator of Outward Bound Japan and as a Management Consultant, I have experienced and learned from many breakdowns along the way to help make me a better transcultural leader today. In trying to figure out the causes of breakdowns, I think the 80/20 rule applies. According to the authors, 80% of a breakdown has cultural roots, 20% or less is personal.

Understanding the characteristic differences of a high or tightly woven culture from that of a low or loosely knit culture is a powerful tool to assist transcultural leaders in achieving cultural synergy. The model in the back of the book outlines how these two cultures deal with a variety of issues and is a great guide to helps leaders or workers to think, analyze and ask the right questions to try and resolve or prevent breakdowns. The skills of Ask and Tell (on pages 79-81) help to elicit the information to resolve or prevent breakdowns. The five C's: continuous learning, consistent leadership, centeredness in one's own culture, commitment to a vision and ceaseless communication are a brilliant summary of what every manager needs in working towards a transculturally empowered workplace. Communication is essential in a diverse world. Cross-cultural communication skills are probably the most difficult area for people to become adept at, particularly when it comes to getting and giving feedback. One of the most useful contributions this book gave me, were the Gifts of Feedback. My job as a facilitator is not only to give feedback to my clients and colleagues but also to help teach others how to positively give constructive feedback to one another. Being an effective transcultural communicator can help create a strong culture which Dr. Mark Silber says, "...produces electricity in the atmosphere... People give that extra effort because they experience emotional attachment and a sense of commitment to top management's directions." (Simons, Vazquez, and Harris, p. 156.)

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