Global leaders have to speak Mandarin in English

By Manie Bosman

Living in a globalized society where nearly everybody on earth can reach just about everybody else at any time and at any place, requires leaders to have the appropriate communication skills. The giant leap in global communication technology not only enables us to stay in touch with our relatives on a sheep farm in Australia – it has also completely revolutionized the way the world does business and interacts across borders and continents. Radically improved global communication had helped to bring products, markets and consumers closer together in an environment where change is the only constant and where visionary leadership rather than traditional management efficiency is often an organization’s greatest asset.

This means that organizational leaders need to be skilled communicators not only within their own organizational milieu, but also in the global setting. They need to be able to communicate cross-culturally, cross-genders, and cross-generations. To be competent cross-cultural communicators, leaders need cultural awareness and understanding, knowledge of the local language (including its nonverbal aspects), and the motivation to apply their cultural awareness to establish global business relationships.

Stripped bare, communication is the sharing of outward symbols (in the form of text, sounds or gestures) which represent certain mental interpretations or intentions (messages). However, symbols have different meanings in different cultures, and therefore leaders need to learn the meaning of the symbols in the “other” culture before they can effectively communicate inter-culturally. If this does not happen, the results are often vagueness of meaning, uncertainty and limited understanding – all of which could result in communication breakdown and ultimately in leadership failure.

It is important to realize, though, that this ethnocentric approach (focusing on the differences in communication patterns between cultures) have a number of pitfalls you need to avoid.  In our global village, fusion of cultures often occur through exposure and cultural interaction. The result is that it becomes dangerous to assume that people of a particular culture share the same traits, needs and approaches in communication. By stereotyping the culture, there is a risk of condescending and ignoring the uniqueness of each individual while also ignoring the fact that communication is always situational or context sensitive in nature. This is especially applicable in technologically developed environments.

To conclude – leaders communicating in a global or inter-cultural environment clearly need to be culturally aware and sensitive. However, they also need to become constant learners – not relying on their existing assumptions about or experience of other cultures or cultural stereotypes. As such, they need to apply the principles of evidence based management and be lead by a combination of common sense and evidence, continuously seeking new information and insight to keep updating their assumptions, knowledge, and communication skills. Ultimately, they need to become skilled at speaking Mandarin or Swahili in English!

Copyright: Manie Bosman 2010


About Manie Bosman

Manie Bosman is Founder and CEO of the Strategic Leadership Institute. He is a leadership development consultant specializing in the emerging fields of neuroleadership and neurosafety. Based in Pretoria, South Africa, Manie has more than 20 years of international experience in cross-cultural interaction, diversity management, change management, public speaking, communication, corporate training and team development. He holds a Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership and believes that effective leadership is the key determiner of success in any venture, group or organization.
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