Leadership has defied easy definition for millennia. One of the reasons for this is the level to which leadership action needs to adapt to cultural context and ‘the change that’s needed’ – a fact ignored in personality-centred explanations of how leadership works. Because of this, leadership action often shows up in unexpected ways, particularly to those of us who have become attached to the idea of ‘leader as hero’.
As one of the Impact consultants based in Asia, I’ve noticed how much I need to adapt Impact’s model of building leadership capacity to the local context. Leadership action here doesn’t look anything like the ego-laden stories that Westerners might tell about a pivotal act of leadership, in which an individual finds courage to publicly challenge how a group is operating. In many Asian cultures, noticing involves ‘reading the air’ around you, conversations are more subtle with opinions shared and negotiated before meetings, and important feedback may be indirect. Acts of leadership match this context and are less likely to be visible than in Western contexts; indeed, overly individualistic acts of leadership that threaten group harmony may be interpreted as immature or rebellious.
We use four ‘tests’ to distinguish an act of leadership, all of which need subtle adaptation for the culture that people are operating in: Did the action stand out enough amidst the background activity? Did it move the group forwards in some way or change things? Was it legitimate for the person to do what they did? And finally, was it done in ‘good faith’, i.e. in service of the group and the greater context the group operates in?
This last test could perhaps be restated as asking whether an act of leadership is ego-based or oriented towards making things better for the whole (eco-based). This may seem irrelevant, but when working with the collective intelligence of a group, with no positional authority yourself, you are more likely to help the group tip into helpful action if people sense you are doing it with a view to what might be best for everyone, rather than your own ego (e.g. needing to be right, powerful, liked etc).
So let’s bring this thinking closer to home, by asking you to think back to the last time you took an act of leadership in your cultural context…
- What do you believe was the source of your action – was it ego or eco in nature?
- How do you know?
- What impact did it have? (How did others respond/what has happened since?)
- What might you try differently next time?
- And if you failed to act, what stopped you?
Dave Hardegger is Head of Impact New Zealand and an Executive coach, working in a range of areas, including professional and personal development programmes, leadership and team development and coaching and mentoring.
 Scharmer, O and Kaufer, K. 2013. Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies. California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.