Valley or Mountain – Adapting Your Leadership Style for Cross-Cultural Success

Are you a mountain or a valley when it comes to your leadership style?  Depending in which country or countries you are leading, you may require more mountain, more valley or a little of both.

 Let’s explore this idea a little further.

Mountains are big, solid, easy to see and imposing.  They are also vulnerable.  They are exposed to all of the elements; many are barren and being a mountain is more often than not lonely.  In time, due to this exposure, many mountains crumble or have large pieces break away.  As a leader if your style is more mountain then you have probably identified with many of these characteristics; you feel as though you have to be strong, solid and dependable and stand out from the rest of the group and perhaps take on more than you should to get things done. In some countries this may be acceptable, and in others a non-negotiable way of leading. In countries where hierarchy and power are central to daily and organisational life you need to be more mountain, and be seen to hold your place in the hierarchy. Most of Asia, France, many eastern European and South American countries fall into this category.

Irrespective of which country you apply mountain leadership behaviours, there are consequences of this behaviour; just as the mountain has landslides and in time breaks down, the same can be said for our physical and emotional well-being.  We start to worry more than usual about what others think – which is natural when you are working hard to stand out from the rest.  The biggest consequence is that we can push people away rather than bring them with us, which in turn creates not only the power of the role, but the solitude that comes with a mountain. 

Through western eyes this is often considered an unacceptable way of leading; but in the context of the country from which the culture originates, it’s not for other nationalities to judge; rather it is about understanding and seeing it as an evolved way of leading for that culture.

That then explains why if you are using more mountainous leadership behaviours in countries where the key word is ‘empowerment’, then you probably won’t be getting the results you want. In these countries, where hierarchy isn’t considered as important, we tend to see behaviours that are more representative of a valley. Effective leaders in this context look to their people for solutions and are approachable – and they are usually more effective connectors.  Whether it is the ability to lead a cross-functional or multi-national team, be an effective business partner or guide a collaborative organisation – all of these require the ability to connect with people and to connect people.  This is exactly what a valley does.  A valley is the ultimate connector.  Two or three grand mountain systems can all be connected by the one valley that weaves its way around and through the tall and imposing features.

Is a valley any weaker than a mountain?  No. In some ways it could be considered stronger given that it doesn’t have the same exposure to the elements and receives the rich nutrients than flow down from the mountains into its creeks and rivers.  It is able to derive the best of every mountain that it comes in contact with, and for this reason, it is in the valley where the soil is the most fertile.  There is cross-pollination, and an abundance of life.  Most Anglo, Germanic and Scandinavian cultures tend toward the valley way of leading. However just as the mountain can crumble, the valley can flood. Leaders who lean more towards the valley style can find themselves overwhelmed and drowning simply because it is just as acceptable for a manager to get in help out with the troops, or take on more of a workload to ease the pain of the team. In other words, become a rescuer.

So just as the mountain way of leading isn’t so palatable for the westerner, neither is the valley seen as being very applicable by those who lean towards mountain behaviours. Again, it is purely contextual and must be recognised that it is a style of leadership that has evolved for that environment.

Having said all this, it’s important to realise that from a national culture context, neither the mountain nor the valley leadership styles are better than the other; they each perform well in their given context. Where it gets interesting is when you are leading people from different countries and cultures. When this is the situation, it’s not about giving up who you are; it’s about being comfortable in your own skin whilst you adapt your style to suit the culture or country that you are working with.

At the end of the day, it’s worth considering that some days you may need to be the mountain, some days the valley, and others you are a plateau at 2000 metres. Either way it’s about choosing the path of least resistance to achieving engagement despite borders.

Ponte Valle Insight: Valley or Mountain – Adapting Your Leadership Style for Cross-Cultural Success

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