We are all on a cultural intelligence journey every day of our lives in this rich, complex and sometimes deeply unsettling world of ours. In our businesses, families and relationships, we connect as a matter of course with people from many cultures, generations and backgrounds.
I am by no means different in talking regularly via Skype to clients and contacts in Australia, Brazil, the US, France, Japan and Hong Kong, to name just a few of the countries and locations. Whether for business, family or pleasure, I get on a plane to Denmark, Singapore, Italy, South Korea or even Myanmar as if it were nothing special, as if the destination were just around the corner.
In this sense I am something of a mini-multinational, just like millions of entrepreneurs and small or medium-size businesses like me around the world – and millions of travellers too.
Even at home in London, I interact regularly with different members of multicultural teams in companies both large and small, as well as with their corresponding teams in countries all over the globe. Almost everything I do involves some kind of cross-cultural or cross-generational encounter.
MUSCLE OF THE MIND
I exercise three times a week at my local gym by the River Thames in a Body Pump class where it only recently occurred to me to count how many nationalities were in the studio.
The result astounded me. I discovered that I took regular exercise with Body Pumpers of around 35 nations, of which just two ‘locally grown’ fitness fanatics including myself represented the UK. Our instructors are Brazilian, Cypriot, Hong Kong Chinese and Latvian.
And yet until I did my little study (which eased the pain of the countless lower-half lunges) it did not occur to me that there was anything special in our thrice-weekly cultural mash-up.
Or rather, it occurred to me on some level where my cultural intelligence was on automatic – the space where I translated what was said to me in different versions of English, with a few Portuguese or Greek words thrown in, and where I instinctively modulated my own Cambridge English to chime with different ways of speaking the language.
In other words, my Body Pump class is a microcosm of what I have trained my cultural intelligence to do over the past 40 years: tune in, accept, interpret, respond with similar intonation and even choice of words, harmonize, earn trust, make friendships, gain benefits.
DEVELOPING GLOBAL MINDSET
I don’t know whether this chimes with you or not. It’s only a simple example, but I’m sure if you think over your daily routine in your workplace or at home you might come up with similar examples of almost unnoticed adapting, or as some of the cultural intelligence studies call it ‘flexing’.
It may be the way you talk with your local corner shop owner on the way to work, or the regulars at your coffee shop, or colleagues in your team or your boss. It’s something we do in the face of the incredible diversity of our world, both in the workplace and communicating via virtual networks. We try to get on the other person’s wavelength.
We may not be very good at it. We may have little experience of it. We may be better with understanding and adapting to some cultures and generations rather than others. But I think if you go deep inside, you will catch glimpses of moments when this adapting or reaching out or ‘flexing’ or whatever you want to call it really worked out for you.
It is at moments like these when we bridge the gap with a person from another background, culture or age group almost without thinking – and yet we retain the essential being that is ourselves, with all our values and beliefs intact.
BAMBOO LEADER = INTELLIGENT LEADER
I call a person who regularly achieves this level of understanding and flexibility a Bamboo Leader, or an Intelligent Leader. The bamboo bends in the wind but is inherently very strong. It is still used for scaffolding in some parts of the world. It flexes with wind and rain and even snow, but always springs back. It has an empty centre with space to be filled.
In other words, the bamboo represents both empathy and strength. As the world becomes more multipolar, more connected and more multicultural, we need to develop the qualities of the Intelligent Leader in ourselves.
This is an extract from my recent book, Bamboo Strong – Cultural Intelligence Secrets To Succeed In The New Global Economy with Foreword by Dr Marshall Goldsmith.
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