Recently Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech has celebrated its 50th anniversary. In the speech King found a way to further unlock America’s founding promise that, “All men are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. In the 50 years since King’s speech American has changed beyond all recognition, however some say there is still a way to go in the struggle for true equality; an equality that extends beyond the mere letter of the law. Statistics can be quoted to prop up both perspectives and although the eradication of discrimination and bias is perhaps something of a utopian dream, it is one that we should nevertheless continually strive to achieve.

Hands holding globeIn TomorrowToday we have seen a marked uptake in large multinational companies around both the need to better understand diversity and how exactly to leverage difference. The reality of operating in a complex and connected world in which demographic shifts are in constant motion, is that we are in urgent need to rethink our approach and practice when it comes to difference. The challenge this poses is that the ability to do this work (rethink) requires a lot of emotional intelligence on the part of leadership. Too many leaders remain caught in their own paradigm; they have a static worldview that no longer reflects the world as it really is.

It is important that as a leader you recognize your own lenses through which you see the world. This is the first important step in the ability to entertain a competing or paradoxical viewpoint that will be necessary in leading difference. If you are in the Western world, a visit to China will be a sure way to shake one’s worldview. This will especially be true if that visit really allows you to see beyond the obvious and experience the ‘real China’ – which is not found in the western styled five star hotels. An authentic engagement with China will quickly reveal the almost debilitating paradoxes that exist and given the role and influence that China will play in our global future, delaying this personal leadership education is not smart.

Companies doing business in Asia and that embrace a global workforce and customer base, will have no option other than to rethink their approach and practice when it comes to leading diversity. Nothing that your leaders have experience has prepared them for the challenges posed by this new globalised and connect world.

In his book Global Dexterity, Andy Molinsky provides a ‘cultural code’ that can help when encountering difference. The code highlights six areas that might require one to adjust one’s own behaviour:

Directness: How straightforwardly am I expected to communicate in this situation?
Enthusiasm: How much positive emotion and energy am I expected to show in this situation?
Assertiveness: How strongly am I expected to express my own voice in this situation?
Formality: How much deference and respect am I expected to demonstrate in this situation?
Personal Disclosure: How much can I reveal about myself in this situation?
Self-promotion: How positively am I expected to speak about my skills and accomplishments?

Molinsky makes the point that variations across this index will be influenced by both geography as well as industry. For example, if one was in northern Japan in an engineering firm, things could be very different to being in southern Japan in a law firm. Of course there is far more to leveraging difference and leading diversity that this code but it does provide a helpful framework to understanding how our own behaviour might need to adapt from situation to situation.

The point of all this is that difference matters. How we prepare our leaders to lead in such a world will require some bold decisions as to what the learning agenda needs to incorporate and the methodology employed in such a journey. We cannot afford not to get it right. I recently heard of a young leader who has lived in China for several years. He was recently relocated to another part of the globe and his successor has stepped in and displayed no cultural sensitivity to the Chinese context and how work gets done in this part of the world. The young leader who worked hard at understanding the cultural subtleties and nuances commented despairingly that his successor would undo in six months what took him six years to build. I asked, “Well why don’t you point this out to him?” to which he replied, “He won’t listen. He thinks his previous business model that was successful will work here…it won’t but he can’t seem to see that. He seems both unwilling and incapable of learning what it will take to succeed here”

Need I say more?

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