Over the past 10 years many companies have aggressively expanded their global footprint. If they haven’t, they are certainly thinking about it as the need to grow and create a presence in emerging markets becomes unavoidable.
ColonisationMany who have explored this route have encountered significant leadership challenges. They have found out that leadership ‘here’ is not the same as leadership ‘over there’. What has worked rather seamlessly over here simply hasn’t translated when it comes to the new market in the ‘over there’ version of their business.
Why is that?
These are smart people with a wealth of product, industry and market experience. These are leaders who have more often than not ‘been there and done that’ and have successfully built a business with a significant local footprint. Why then the failure to translate all this into the new setting?
Leadership colonialism. That is the reason.
Leadership colonialism is the often unstated but tangible attitude and behaviour that conveys a ‘we know best’ type of message. It is a leadership style that asks no questions and dictates the what, how and when agenda. It is one based on past success but success achieved in a very different context. It is something that can be both overt and covert in how it is practiced. It is the exporting of unchallenged assumptions around culture that simply don’t translate in the new context.
Leadership colonialism is rife. It can be seen from the hallways of prestigious business schools to the boardroom; from the corporate office to the factory floor. It can infuse an entire organisational culture and way of doing things to being something carried by individuals’ tasked with the responsibility of leadership and transferred in much the same way that a harmful virus spreads.
It is something that is obvious to those subjected to it whilst it remains hidden from those who practice it. It is hard to confront and difficult to change. It is a ‘right’ that is obviously ‘wrong’ – a paradox of sorts and one that needs to be identified if you are to succeed in a context unfamiliar to that of your own.
For leaders the challenge is to understand the damage that practicing a type of leadership colonialism can do. It means that as a leader you need to know when your worldview gets in the way of understanding whatever is different, whatever doesn’t make sense, whatever is ‘abnormal’ from how you see things. Don’t underestimate how difficult this ‘seeing’ is.
Here are five leadership practices that will help identify and dismantle leadership colonialism:
1.    Ask questions. Don’t assume you know the way or the answer. Ask questions and listen carefully – listen to be sure that you aren’t being given the answers that others expect you want to hear.
2.    Pause and observe. Look carefully at how things work in this new context. Identify patterns and as they emerge and don’t try to assert ‘your pattern’ but rather look as to how what you do, can add to that which is already happening.
3.    Be willing to adjust your style, your way, and your strategy. You will need to be a ‘learner’ – a student if you want to give yourself a chance of success. Understand things will be different and be willing to incorporate the best of what you encounter with whatever you feel needs to happen at a bigger or broader (global) level.
4.    Build relationship. It is through relationship that you will learn what you need to learn and cultivate feedback loops that will serve you in this learning process.
5.    Fail quickly. You will fail, but do so quickly. Initial failure is not necessarily a bad thing but it does make your ‘next move’ critical.
Dismantling leadership colonialism can be a humbling experience. It is an acknowledgement that ‘we don’t know best’ – that there is ‘another way’.
The practice of leadership colonialism does untold harm and is something, as with all forms of colonialism, is ultimately challenged and rejected, often at great cost.

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