4 Things Star Wars Teaches Us About Cross-Cultural Leadership

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As a professor I often tell my students that we will engage in learning and teaching together.  I am consistently influenced by the work and insights of my students. Today’s guest blog is an example of some great lessons by Christina, a student in my Global Leadership class. I know you will enjoy it!

…IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY…

As more and more organizations become global, leaders are faced with an increasing need to engage followers from differing backgrounds and cultures. Culture plays a significant role in how leaders interact with those around them. Behaviors and traits that are valued in one culture may not be acceptable in another. Developing the skills needed to effectively lead individuals from multiple cultures can be challenging. Therefore, it is important for leaders to understand how to relate to their followers while still doing what is best for the organization.

Star Wars has been a pop culture phenomenon for decades, inciting internet memes, fan fiction, merchandise, costumes and theme park attractions. Although I’m no Star Wars expert, our family recently watched the movies and as we did, I began to observe connections between cross-cultural leadership and this blockbuster series. Here are the four things that Star Wars taught me about how to engage followers from different cultures.

THE CHEWIE PRINCIPLE: LOVE TRANSLATES

You might assume that I learned this lesson by watching the main love interests, Princess Leia and Han Solo, interacting on screen. However, I believe that the real romance is found between Han and his loyal sidekick Chewbacca. Despite grunts and throat gurgles that only they can understand, the audience knows exactly what they mean to each other and are privy to their heartwarming bromance. They clearly demonstrate that the power of love transcends cultural boundaries.

Love translates into any language. No matter where you are from, you just know when someone loves and respects you. Even when there is a cultural gap, followers instinctively understand when their leader loves and cares about them. Leaders who operate in the global environment must demonstrate their affection through agape love which is unselfish, self-giving, not self-seeking, and does not expect love in return [1]. In fact, love (and belonging) is one of Maslow’s basic necessities [2]. This can be attributed to our deep-rooted need to feel affirmation by those we work, live and interact with. Love is an important aspect of leadership that works as a motivator to individuals from any nation. Especially in global environments, research shows that employees who feel loved, valued and respected tend to work harder [3].

THE JAR JAR LESSON: SOFT SKILLS CAN BE LEARNED

Star Wars also taught me that the ‘softer’ skills which contribute to effective leadership can be learned (like emotional intelligence, personality and cognitive intelligence). In the newer films, supporting character Jar Jar Binks is just plain annoying! He lacks the social skills and personal discipline which often results in trouble. However, there is one scene where Jedi Master Qui Gon Jinn carefully corrects Jar Jar because he believes him to be capable of changing.

I once worked on the same floor as Dave, a manager of a different department. Dave was brilliant. Technically adept at a wide variety of skills, he was often put in charge of large projects that had nothing to do with his job description just because of his extensive knowledge. The only downside to Dave was his lack of what researchers call ‘soft skills’, those skills that focus on emotional intelligence, leadership, and inspiring others. After a particularly difficult meeting with his superiors Dave was frustrated and took his anger out on his assistant (something he had done several times in the past). His behavior was noted by another manager on our floor named Louis who pulled him aside. Louis took the time to sit with him and explain why yelling at his assistant was, to quote Louis, “not nice”. The simplicity of the statement struck a chord with Dave. He was embarrassed that his actions had been seen around the office and had resulted in his reputation of being a mean boss. He went to his assistant the next day and apologized, something he would have never done in the past. He also apologized to others on the floor who had experienced his outbursts. There was a noticeable transformation in Dave over the next few months. Even though he occasionally had minor mishaps with colleagues and his personality was still a little abrasive, there was a definite change in overall behavior and attitude.

Soft skills are often learned through personal experience and reflection [4]. One-on-one coaching and mentoring are also valuable ways to further develop the leadership skillsets necessary in the global environment [5]. Leaders can sharpen their global leadership abilities by asking others for feedback and being open to constructive criticism. Vulnerability and respecting other’s opinions are keys to learning soft skills.

THE EWOK STRATEGY: OBSERVATION BEFORE ACTION

Leaders cannot charge head first into a new situation without first observing the behaviors and culture of those they are working with. It is key (especially in global leadership) to carefully scrutinize new environments before interacting. We learned this lesson when Han, Leia, and Luke battled the primitive Ewoks. When they are first sighted by their enemy, Han decided there wasn’t enough time to think up a plan and instead impulsively ran out to attack them. He believed that the Ewoks would be easily defeated due to diminutive size and lack of technology. However, the furry little creatures surprised everyone with their cunning traps and aggressive fighting style.

Research has shown that observation is a key component of learning socially accepted behaviors [6]. As we look around in nature, we learn that most behavior is learned from observation. In order to fit in with the other kids at school, a child will watch the others before acting. The same principle applied to leaders operating in other cultures. Before leading a group of individuals from different cultures, leaders should take the time to observe and learn about their values, norms, accepted practices, and behaviors.

THE YODA FACTOR: HUMILITY IS KING

The greatest example of a humble leader in the Star Wars saga is Yoda. The little green alien with strange speech patterns is beloved by fans everywhere. It’s not his venerated position or incredible fighting skills that earned him this reputation. Rather, it is the simple way that he unobtrusively serves those he teaches. With bowed head and a soft-spoken voice, this Jedi master guides those he leads with their best interests at heart.

One of the most common misconceptions about leadership is that those who lead are always attractive, strong-willed, and charismatic. However, some of the best leaders are made of the most unassuming individuals. Servant leadership is based on the theory that a leader’s primary concern should be to serve followers while helping them achieve their fullest potential [7]. This means leaders put the needs and desires of their followers before their own, and seek to encourage and promote followers instead of themselves.

MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU

Star Wars may be a sci-fi fantasy but the lessons learned from the series are applicable in real world scenarios. Leaders who add these principles to their repertoire will be able to better interact with followers despite cultural differences. Communication will be richer because leaders are focused on the needs of their followers. This selfless abandonment of pride allows leaders to effectively guide those who live in cultures that are different from their own. Star Wars teaches us that engaging in cross-cultural leadership requires sacrifice, humility, love, respect, vulnerability, observation, and patience. Leaders who work in a global environment have the choice to focus on sharpening these skillsets in order to be more effective across cultures.

As Yoda reminds us, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”


 

Princess Leia

Christina Angelakos is a student at Regent University in the Doctor of Strategic Leadership program. She works for a church in Orlando helping people connect in Small Groups and Volunteering. Christina spends her extra time with her family, playing music and watching old movies (Star Wars when her Dad has the remote!). Twitter: @ChristinaAngel

Head ShotDr. Jeff Suderman an educator, consultant and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He has not yet pre-purchased his tickets for the new Star Wars movie. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman

References

[1] Hoyle, J. (2002). Leadership and the force of love: Six keys to motivating with love. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press.

[2] Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

[3] Kinyanjui, S. (2013). Innovative strategies for managing workforce diversity in kenyan leading corporations in present global scenario. International Journal of Business and Management, 8(15), 20-32.

[4] Dixon, J., Belnap, C., Albrecht, C., & Lee, K. (2010). THE IMPORTANCE OF SOFT SKILLS. Corporate Finance Review, 14(6), 35-38.

[5] Baron, L., & Morin, L. (2010). The impact of executive coaching on self-efficacy related to management soft-skills. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 31(1), 18-38.

[6] Almeida, F. (2011). Vicarious learning and institutional economics. Journal of Economic Issues, 45(4), 839-855.

[7] van Dierendonck, D., & Patterson, K. (2015). Compassionate love as a cornerstone of servant leadership: An integration of previous theorizing and research. Journal of Business Ethics, 128(1), 119-131.

1 comment

  1. Bobby Hendrix

    Great way to integrate pop culture and leadership!

    reply

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