Strategic Leadership November 2014

Leading Across Cultures

I remember traveling to Okinawa, Japan as a young U.S. Marine, being afraid yet excited. When we landed in Okinawa from LAX we had to participate in a base orientation, where military officials would give us basic instructions for a week on the do’s and don’ts of living overseas.

One of the instructions that were given to us was the fact that you could not wave a person over with your fingers facing up (but fingers had to be facing down), because in Japanese culture it meant that you were calling them over like a dog (so our instructor explained). We were also told that it was considered disrespectful to look into the eyes of an older person for too long. You could see the confusion with all the Americans that were at this cultural workshop, since most had been taught to look into the eyes of those speaking, if not; the person would find it disrespectful.

These mix-ups and lack of cross-cultural knowledge is what prevents many business leaders to have a competitive advantage. Yet we know the world has become global faster than anyone can keep up. The fact remains if you want to survive in this competitive market you need to develop as a cross-cultural leader. Yet research shows that many organizations still lack a diverse cultural presence. The following steps are a framework that leaders and executives can use to assist in their shift to becoming more cross-cultural within and out of their organizations.

Become a Strategic Leader

Strategic leadership can be very broad and multidisciplinary. Richard L. Hughes and Katherine C. Beatty state that being strategic is “to think, act and influence in ways that promote the sustainable competitive advantage of the organization.” Let’s face it; if we don’t become cross-cultural in our business we are liable to become obsolete; and no one wants that. Everyone wants their organization to be sustainable and competitive, and this is how you do it. Becoming a strategic leader is simple; asses where you are and where you want to be then make a great strategy to get there. The most difficult part leaders have is making that leap from preparation to implementation.

Build Cross-Cultural Intelligence

Building cross-cultural intelligence takes a lot of hard work, and at times getting assistance from coaches and consultants. This is one of the reasons why many leaders do not make the transition from domestic to international. But, in this globalize world that we live in, it is an imperative! Cultural intelligence is the ability to be effective in many cultures and environments. This is a lifelong process and not a onetime event. Therefore, this type of leadership effectiveness comes to leaders through direct exposure of diverse circumstances and life experiences.

Dare to be Different

Your organization can only keep its competitiveness through its distinctiveness. This is your opportunity to brand your business and go to another level. I heard Seth Godin say “what made the Hummer and the Cooper so successful in the automobile industry was their way of being completely different from each other.” How about you? Are you, your team, or organization like everyone else? Are you trying to emulate what you see being done around you? Or are you trying to be different? What is your niche?

This is the season for growth and competitiveness, but that will only be for those who are different from the bunch. Let’s face it; no one wants a cheap copy! So instead of imitating another leader or business, why don’t we just be ourselves, and seek others who are themselves but different from us.


I have discussed what leaders can do to become more effective cross-culturally. The argument remains in order to have and keep a competitive advantage you will need to be a strategic leader, build cross-cultural intelligence, and dare to be different. Diversity produces creativity and innovation. Learning and seeking life experiences different from the ones we are accustomed to will help us become well-rounded cross-cultural leaders.

The only person stopping us from achieving cross-cultural effectiveness is ourselves. Finally, our businesses, organizations, and leadership will transcend across boarders if we are willing to partner with others unique perspectives in this globalized market. Wouldn’t you want to have this competitive advantage? You can; but first you have to develop as a cross-cultural leader.

Peter Rios is a consultant to businesses, organizations, and religious institutions. His company, R.I.O.S.-Robust Innovative Organizational Solutions, LLC, focuses on leadership development, organizational diversity and renewal. Rios’ passion is to add value to people and see their organizations transformed. Equipping people with the tools for success and building relationships through team work brings him great fulfillment.

His extensive experience and doctoral education in strategic leadership has made him a sought out speaker, facilitator and coach. Rios has traveled to speak and serve in China, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Canada, and throughout the U.S. In the United States Marines Corps he gained global leadership exposure in multicultural settings while stationed in Okinawa Japan and South Korea. Ríos is an adjunct professor in Indiana at Wesleyan University.

Mr. Rios is married to his lovely wife Dr. Ruth Gonzalez-Rios and resides in Rochester, NY. For consultancy email him at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *