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The Impact Of Culture On Leadership Abilities

, February 7, 2014, 0 Comments

Culture On Leadership Abilities - MarketExpress

Bloomberg published an article about why Indians in senior leadership positions are sought after and I found it particularly interesting that it was written by a non-Indian.  Leonid Bershidsky observed that Indians possess a mix of empathy, humility, patience and an ability to dream that make us good candidates for these positions.  Throughout the article, he provides a number of examples that make this case.

I felt a momentary privilege reading this, especially given I had never thought of this angle of analysis before – but, it strikes me that despite the huge amount of influence culture has on people, it’s not a single culture that leads to successful leaders.  For all the examples cited in that article, I can think of counter examples of Indian senior leaders that do not exactly fit that mold.

Indian culture inherently brings empathy to the forefront – it takes tremendous amount of effort for us Indians to get past the point of ‘feeling’ the pain of friends and family, and sometimes, even acquaintances.  There is too much emotion involved in just about everything.  This is what leads to large, joint families that quarrel and make up on a regular basis as if that was their main goal in life.

Humility and patience go hand-in-hand to some extent – in a country of a billion+ people, you often must earn your respect and it takes time. As to the ability to dream, I’ll get to it a little later.

What is intriguing about this article is that while it makes some valid points, Indians are not fundamentally born leaders. Historically, India continuously submitted to external occupants and leaders and the war for independence was fought with tremendous patience and empathy – taking us back to reinforcements of those qualities.  Assertive leadership was never an option and there were instances where this was not quite desirable.  Whether the India-Pakistan divide was a result of this rather ‘soft leadership’ will be an inconclusive debate forever!

Coming back to corporate careers and particularly corporate America – an Indian without the impacts of western (particularly, American) education and work culture is more likely to be a misfit than a successful leader.  Of course, we can debate this and point out exceptions (there always are!).  But the real point is that it is worldly exposure and wisdom that ultimately brings out the best in people.  Cultures are also passed down very powerfully – just like traits that get passed on across generations, corporate cultures also flow down the chain.  A micro managing leader at the top is likely to create a ladder of micro managers under him/her.

For all the pluses that Indian culture brings to leadership, I can think of several cons as well that come with it – say, being a bit too passive or shy, dwelling on ideas for too long before making bets, etc.  It is the exposure to western cultures that teaches us how to balance these against aggressiveness and making calculated big bets.

All credit goes to the internationalization and a confluence of several cultures – the more exposed we are, the more rounded we get and better leaders we become.  So, never stop exploring – that’s the only path to being a great leader!

As to whether Satya Nadella would do great things for Microsoft – I have my biases and I’ll let them be for now!