Culture Difference and My Leadership Style

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By Matt Harris

Let’s start with some context: I am an American living in Asia, working in an international school. For the past four years, I worked at the German European School of Singapore (GESS) as a senior manager. Now, I work at as a senior leader at the British School of Jakarta (BSJ) in Indonesia . . . and I am still American.

At GESS, I came in as one of three Americans in a staff of 180. At BSJ, I am one of four Americans in a staff of 130. The words diversity and cultural competency are foremost on my interactions with colleagues and parents.

As I have transitioned from a diverse international faculty with a strong German contingent at GESS to a more homogenous but still international faculty at BSJ, one would think my communication approach would have shifted from a more general approach to one that is more culturally specific. However, that has not been true for me. I am the same evolving leader I have always been.

What I have discovered is that leadership, like all communication and personality, is individual. My history as an American, my experience working in California schools, my educational training, and my personal background have all influenced my leadership style. To be the most effective educational leader, I have to recognize and honor my history and culture as I learn how to interact with others. When I see people deny what they know and who they are as a leader, they become not only inauthentic but also ineffective as a leader.

Living overseas, especially at my new post, means learning how to tailor my approaches to meet the cultural needs of my colleagues. You see, I am opinionated, direct, strategically focused, and heavily interested in team members growing rather than being managed by me. These approaches are not always appropriate when trying to lead in a school with a culture that differs from mine. Here are four strategies I’ve used to navigate my leadership role in the face of these cultural differences.

Listen—I listen . . . a lot. I listen to what people have to say and how they say it. I watch other leaders in my school interact and manage their teams. And I listen to people outside of my school and learn their opinions of how things work and how my approaches may be taken.

Take a Relational Approach—Instead of referring to task assignment or hierarchy, I focus on people and teams. I build coalitions and discuss what “we” can do to move things forward. Regardless of history or cultural norms of communication, people are people. By learning about them and collaborating with them on a relational level, I find avenues to leverage my leadership style and learn more about their cultural needs.

Talk the Way You Know How to Talk—I speak openly about vision, strategy, and challenge. I discuss the things that need to get done in my “American” way and with my “American” vernacular. Though my colleagues may not realize this, I have changed what and how I say things based on what I’ve learned. This has been a learning experience for me as a leader. I know more about my style because I have had to adapt it. I have grown as a leader because I have taken who I am and fit it into an unknown situation.

Recognize and Own Your Mistakes—There are several cultures where this is frowned upon as a leader, but I find I am far more authentic and successful when people see me learning from mistakes, righting wrongs, and continuing to move forward. It makes us a stronger team and better communicators, and my colleagues, regardless of their history or culture, feel comfortable doing the same.

In short, learn to read a new school or staff, but know your own style and its strengths as you look to lead people, no matter who those people may be.

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Matt Harris is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. He is the deputy dean for learning technology at the British School of Jakarta in Jakarta, Indonesia. Connect with Harris on Twitter @MattHarrisEdD.

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