Cultural Self-Awareness
in Leadership Teams
Every thought, word, and behavior is either biologically adaptive or taught to us. Learned
values, attitudes, and behaviors are often taught to us before we are old enough to know that
we are “learning.” Our first teachers are members of our nuclear and extended families.
Adults model and then articulate what we need to learn in order to survive and be accepted
by the family or community.
Few leadership-development programs take the time and opportunity to reflect on the cultural
rules, morals, taboos, and world-views that are valued by managers and leaders. At work, most
managers spend less than 3 percent of their time in inner-directed discovery, an activity that
could improve their own performance and the success of every member of their organization.
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence,
stresses that self-awareness is one of the hallmarks of an effective leader.* Cultural self-
awareness and its influence on the social behaviors of successful leaders, unfortunately, is
simply not part of the repertoire of most organizational leaders or leadership-development
Regardless of the level of a leadership team (supervisors, managers, senior executives, or
board members), it is a good idea to start a development program by addressing cultural self-
awareness. Try to weave in exercises for this kind of learning into at least one-third of a two-
day program.
For this part of the session, it is important to slow down the pace from the lightning velocity
that most leaders find themselves working under. Reflection and self-discovery need germi-
nation. A slower pace serves this goal well.
These activities will tend to unify the leadership group. After this activity, the leaders will
know one another more deeply and intimately, increasing individual understanding and group
trust. This cohesion is carried forward into the future after each member returns to his or her
job site, and social and emotional intelligence are conveyed perhaps only via e-mail and
voice mail.
Leadership teams of various levels, supervisors, managers, senior executives, or board
members; less than 20 people is the ideal size
60 to 90 minutes
One copy of Daniel Goleman’s “What Makes a Leader?” sent in advance to participants
coming to the program
One postcard for each participant
1. Assign as pre-course reading Daniel Goleman’s article “What Makes a Leader?” (Harvard
Business Review, Reprint 98606
). This builds the business case for taking group time to
uncover salient aspects of each of our cultures and how these affect our ability to meet or
exceed individual and group performance objectives and organizational goals and to carry
out our roles as leaders.
2. Following the statement of course goals and learning outcomes, provide each participant
with a standard-sized postcard. Ask them to write the name of a person in their
organization on the back of the card. Tell them that the organizational role or reporting
relationship of that person to the participant is not important: the person should simply be
someone they have difficulty working with: peer, board member, team member, or
subordinate. The cards are then put away temporarily in the back of their binders.
3. Depending on the weather and the location, encourage participants to take a 30- to 40-
minute focused walk with one other person, describing along the way one major family-
of-origin rule and how that rule impacts their professional capacity as leaders today.
4. Ask them while they are walking to dissect the usually unspoken childhood rules in their
families with as much depth and detail as they can. Tell them to help one another by
asking probing questions such as: “How does that family rule impact your interactions
with your partners in India or Malaysia, or the Serbian-Americans working under you?”
5. Model the activity by telling them about your own family-of-origin experience. Let them
ask you a few probing questions. Here is the author’s example:
As a child, I attended parties with the Chinese part of my family. All the small children
would be put together in one corner of the room and told to be very good (read: very
quiet). The very old ladies and very old men sat in the other parts of the room, chatting
Harvard Business Review, Reprint 98606. To purchase reprints, call Harvard Business Review at 1-800-98-0886.

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