Bernie Anderson
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the blog

Current musings, whatever they may be. 

Leadership Up and Down The Power Scale

Leadership should not be framed by power.

Leadership is how we empower others.

But this gets tricky when leading across cultures.


In the US and much of Europe, we live in a what is known as a “low -power distance” society. Authority can be questioned.  Initiative, individuality, and independent thinking are valued. 

Much of Asia and Latin America hold different values when it comes to leadership and authority.  These are “high-power distance” societies. Thinking shifts here. Respect for age and authority is understood. Hierarchy and unequal distribution of power are seen as beneficial.  The powerful are expected to take care of those with less power. Those with less power are expected to obey those with more power.

The idea of leadership that empowers others is tricky in both kinds of cultures.

For the low-power distance folks, empowering is often all too easy, at first. Inexperience and arrogance often abound — because everyone has a voice. When inexperience and arrogance step into leadership too soon, the results are often disastrous.

In the places of high-power distance, it will be difficult to inspire aspiration. Leadership could become a game of power manipulation.  Or instruction giving. In my experience leading in a high-power distance culture, instructions are followed to the letter. To a fault.  It’s essential to be clear and detailed.

In the urbanized globalized world in which we live, there will be an increasing number of people from both kinds of societies in the same room working on the same projects.

Leaders in these situations will empower in three ways.

Communication - explain your own leadership style well and often.

Clarity - be clear and specific about expectations. Details are important — on both projects and upward mobility.

Flexibility — when leading cross-culturally you will find yourself leading up and down the scale.  This requires being thoughtful and flexible.