Insights

Is Individualism the achilles heel of western leadership?

…the ideal of the ‘authentic’ relationship that we hear so much about in the Anglo leadership space is always relative to the willingness and ability of the people involved to be vulnerable. 

​Trust gained through being vulnerable is not a natural preference for those of us in the Anglo world, but it is probably the door through which we can stand to gain the most in our business and personal relationships.  

Based on the national culture research of Prof Geert Hofstede, we know that close to three quarters of the world is Collectivist.  In other words…it’s about ‘we’ instead of ‘me’.  Group harmony is a central theme, and trust is built based on ‘who’ you are as much (if not more than) ‘what’ you do.  There is a level of implicit vulnerability in this way of being as it means sharing who you are, spending time ‘being’ with others, listening, and putting your own wants, needs and desires to one side whilst you consider and value the wants, needs and desires of the group. Based on this description, you can probably guess that Asia, the Middle East and pockets of Eastern Europe and South America fall into this dimension of culture. It is also said that how you are introduced to a work group in Asia or the Middle East, is critical, because the work group is seen as an extension of the family group.  You aren’t just being introduced to any other team, you are being introduced to ‘my’ team; my ‘family’.

This is not a natural way of being for Individualist cultures such as Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada or the UK.  In an Individualist culture ‘it’s about me not we’! It’s about me being acknowledged for my needs, wants and desires.  Alongside this is the focus we have on the task and achieving the task, often at the expense (or in spite of) the relationship.  It’s little wonder that most money made in team building is probably made in Individualist countries! 

However, it’s also important to note that neither the Collectivist or Individualist way is better than the other.  They are what they are and work still gets done; but when the cultures come together in a highly multi-cultural society or in global teams, understanding this concept, and knowing how to adapt your approach, can be a career-saver!

Beyond this though, in the Anglo business world we also know that vulnerability is a concept, and practice, that can help bind a team and lift performance in a mono-culture environment.  How do we know this?  Look at the focus on helping leaders learn how to engage with their people through development programs and executive/leadership coaching. Consider the metrics we see in engagement surveys that focus on trust and the way leaders create environments conducive to trust and engagement.  Are we in effect asking our leaders to consider some Collectivist practices and create the feeling of family?  A place where we may not always like each other, but we have a relationship built over time that allows us to relax our individual boundaries, share what we really think, what really motivates us or scares us?

The heart of genuine engagement is about being able to move beyond being on task with each other.  It’s about being able to relax our boundaries, and to experience connection and true collaboration based on a platform of professional intimacy.

​And therein lies both the dilemma and the opportunity…the ideal of the ‘authentic’ relationship that we hear so much about in the Anglo leadership space is always relative to the willingness and ability of the people involved to be vulnerable. 

Ponte Valle Insight: Is Individualism the achilles heel of western leadership?

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