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9 - Understanding leadership across cultures

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 December 2009

Rabi S. Bhagat
Affiliation:
University of Memphis
Richard M. Steers
Affiliation:
University of Oregon
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Summary

[c]ulture, in the sense of the inner values and attitudes that guide a population, freightens scholars

David Lander (2000, p. 2)

Recent polls suggested that vladimir Putin, then President of Russia, maintained relatively high levels of popularity within Russia over several years. North Americans and western Europeans do not understand why (Pew Research Center, 2007). The 2008 Presidential election campaign in the US was heavily influenced by candidates' religious beliefs, and Europeans do not understand why (Wells, 2007). Terror attacks in Madrid in 2004 were quickly followed by the election of new national leadership that had campaigned on a promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq – Spanish citizenry largely celebrated the withdrawal of troops as fulfillment of the new leadership's promise to bring troops home if the UN was not in control in Iraq, while American politicians and citizens described Spanish national leadership as capitulating to terrorists (Simons et al., 2004). In each of these cases, cultural differences in the ways in which people think about leadership led to misunderstanding and incorrect attributions about those in other cultures. Clearly, leadership and culture are a potent combination, and it is not surprising that scholars might be fearful of testing their well-established intra-culturally validated leadership theories across cultural boundaries.

Of course, when we look closely at the extant literature on leadership that has been conducted intra-culturally, there is quite a bit there that is none too clear. There is no consistently agreed-upon definition of “leadership,” and consequently no clear understanding of the boundaries of the leadership construct space (e.g., Bass, 1997; Chemers, 1997). Thus, the study of leadership is already complex – adding a cultural component makes it infinitely more so.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2009

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