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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Leadership or liderança

A comment about leadership and ways that people from different national cultures express anger in the Online Facilitation discussion group has got me thinking. The comment was stimulated by Nancy White's blog reference to another blog about leadership by Dan Oestreich.

The poster's comment in the discussion was that the author of the blog about leadership was writing from an American perspective where people avoid showing their anger towards leaders. She suggested that in the Mediterranean basin you get angry if you feel you can't talk openly to someone - and you would use that to your advantage if you felt that you could touch the insecurities of a leader.

I don't recognise that openness with anger in Portugal - a Latin Atlantic country - but, like her, I was struck by the assumptions in Oestreich's reflection on leadership. Frank and open conversations are good because they make me feel better. And I too paused over his paragraph:
"If I am that manager and I see that I cannot talk openly with the leader about that person's style then I may well end up feeling compromised in my ability to talk about many things, certainly including my own needs, feelings, perspectives, and creative (smart, risky) ideas. If I begin to believe that my voice might touch into the insecurities of the leader, no matter how founded or unfounded those insecurities are, I learn to keep quiet. The threat of tweaking the blind spot of someone with more power colors how I choose to behave -- which is most often to become a smaller me."

These words made me think about two unspoken assumptions. One is the taken-for-granted weight given to "I", the individual rather than the group. The thinking begins from the needs and perspectives of one individual and to the solving of that individual's problems in order to solve his problems as manager, rather than starting from the problems of the group which may (or may not) be resolved by the manager being frank (or not) with the leader. Starting from the individual is a very culture-specific way of framing a problem.

Maybe another assumption is that talking openly is a good thing. It reminded me of an articulate Portuguese Professora who stood up from the audience at a conference and said: "Frankly I'm tired of being told to be frank. I was brought up to believe that it was bad manners to be direct and open with people. Now, like in almost everything else, we follow the lead from America and say it's better to speak openly. For myself, I will continue to assume that it is not good to speak openly unless there are particular circumstances that call for it."

Be sure that my reflections aren't specifically about Dan Oestreich's words (in his sensitive and thoughtful blog). It's just that this conversation on leadership led me again to think of the many invisible taken-for-granted assumptions there are behind the words we use. The best that can happen is that I listen to what you say and transform its significance to my own context. The worst is that the writing alienates me. Most of the flow of information goes from centre to periphery countries - and in English. Some of that information is transformed into other cultural contexts, while some of it has an alienating effect on people in many parts of the world. And I think we ignore this at our peril.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


you wrote: "One is the taken-for-granted weight given to "I", the individual rather than the group.". This too is cultural.

Mediterranean cultures are based on relationships, on groups, families, klans, so it's somehow easier for us (I'm from Italy) to consider how our closest ones will react. It's not a case, in fact, that Mediterranean countries (especially Egypt, France, Italy, Jordan and Lybia) are political mediators, regardless of prevalent religion. We have built-in negotiation skills in the way our culture nurture us.

As for the talking openly, though I generally tend to agree and talk openly, I don't think it is always the appropriate way to behave. If my words hurt another person without that hurt to have the chance of being useful (like for example saying: "You are so stupid!") well then I just shut up. But if I see a mistake, then I'll tell cause that has the likelihood of turning out into a neat outcome.

Ultimately, how people react is their choice. We can "only" be consistent with our values :)

Rosanna Tarsiero

1/29/2005 06:17:00 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Beverly and Rosanna

I want to thank you both for your sensitive, thoughtful comments and will post something soon on my own site regarding the cultural limits of what I am writing. I deeply value this discourse on leadership and differences of perspective, assumptions, gaps, misunderstandings, new ways of looking and thinking. And I want to acknowledge two things right away: I have a great deal to learn; and my writing is surely based on my experiences within American business culture. But I certainly do not see American culture as the model for the world or the only culture out there. I'm afraid I cannot (yet) write from a world perspective on leadership, though certainly would like to some day. I honor this great conversation -- and thank you so much for keeping it going! Best regards.

1/29/2005 09:09:00 PM  

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