True leadership allows for the creation of an open forum to debate ideas, concepts and change. When portions of the team are marginalized from the group, the team and organizations no longer benefit from their untapped ideas. In an era of multiculturalism, leaders must pay particular attention to tap into these ideas and avoid ostracizing those with different cultural backgrounds.
Most Canadians are familiar with working in a culturally diverse environment; however, individual cultural norms are often subservient to both Canadian culture and the corporate culture of the enterprise. While this statement may seem unexceptional in the Canadian context, how leadership evolves and adapts to this evolving reality is of the utmost importance in creating highly effective teams providing even better results. Balancing between the internalization of the organization’s culture and the culture of the individual to minimize friction must be foremost in the minds of leaders.
Working within the multi-national NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) in Mons, Belgium, with over 30 nations represented, allowed me a glimpse into this limitless potential. Here, individuals are assigned to the organization and bring their unique individual, institutional and national cultures to the workplace. Within this dynamic, leaders are faced with unique challenges in terms of cultural alignment and overcoming language barriers. The conscious effort to overcome inherent cultural bias creates the conditions necessary to build trust amongst the international partners represented.
The building of trust plays a critical role within the multinational arena. For organizations such as the NATO Special Operations Headquarters, this trust, largely developed through common experiences in battle, training and personal engagement, allows for the development of a unifying vision and strategy against a very networked adversary. In effect, the Special Operations Force creates networks of trust to defeat nefarious networks, and make use of the strengths of all.
For business leaders, much can be learned from this example in order to promote diversity while maximizing and not marginalizing ideas stemming from varied cultural backgrounds.
The leadership challenge is quite substantial. On one hand, leaders must recognize their own cultural bias. That is to say, we all naturally and unconsciously approach our work environment with ingrained cultural reference points. This is not a case of indifference or deliberate thought, but is the direct and natural result of the cultural lens through which we have observed our world since childhood.
Only once a leader is open to look at things through a different lens can team cohesion be achieved. Through self-awareness, understanding of cultural/linguistic challenges and actively seeking to overcome these, leaders can change the dynamic from marginalization to maximizing the potential of all members of the their teams. In the end, by creating a unifying vision, valuing the diverse perspectives of the team, and building trust based on shared experiences and successes, leaders can turn once seemingly difficult group dynamics into highly synchronized and value added relationships, all working for the common institutional goal.