Global Leadership: Do You Have These 3 Cultural Agility Skills?

I like to spend time with people who have lived in other cultures. They are interesting. They have great stories. And they usually possess an exemplary set of interpersonal skills. The ability to be successful in other cultures – personally or professionally – is not an accidental ability. It is something that is developed.

As we encounter different cultures, we subconsciously use one of three methods to make intercultural relationships work. Understanding these three strategies can help us be more effective in becoming culturally agile.

Strategy 1 – Cultural Minimization. You standardize or control cultural differences in order to create consistency. Your goal is to limit cultural differences.

I teach in both North America and in Europe where grading norms differ. In order to provide a consistent standard, grading is defined by a rubric. A grading rubric outlines exactly how a grade is calculated. This minimizes differences in grading standards, something that is important when you have courses taught by people from different nationalities.

Strategy 2 – Cultural Adaptation. You adjust to cultural differences and respond in a way that is expected in that culture. You adapt to the norms of others.

My friend who lived in Indonesia was driving us through the busy streets of Jakarta. To a North American, the driving norms resembled chaos. However, as he spoke of traffic he stated, “In Jakarta, you need to drive like you are in a river. You just have to go with the flow and the currents of traffic and you’ll be fine”. Cultural adapters learn to accept and thrive within existing cultural norms.

Strategy 3 – Cultural Integration. You create a new set of norms and respond with collaboration to find solutions acceptable to all cultures affected (Caligiuri).

A friend of mine is a North American Expat living in the Middle East. In this prevailing Muslim culture, women are expected to wear abayas to cover themselves completely when in public. However, inside their expatriate camp women are theoretically free to dress as they please (they could wear their athletic workout gear at the commissary!) In practice, most women wear clothing that isn’t revealing and is deemed acceptable. Long dresses or loose clothing is worn to provide some cover yet not offend. Discretion and discernment result in an integration strategy that finds acceptable middle ground. 

An easy way to understand these skills is with the following continuum:

Cultural Competency Strategies

When you minimize, you seek to make differences insignificant. Conversely, when you adapt, you decide to let the prevailing culture dictate your behaviors. An integration approach combines the two and seeks to find a middle ground or a new norm.

However, knowing these three strategies is only the first step in being culturally effective. The key is knowing when to use each one at the appropriate time (Caligiuri). There are times when minimizing will be effective and times when it will be offensive. Similarly, integrating or adapting are not always the right solutions.

Therefore, effective leaders must first equip themselves with knowledge about these three unique skills. Secondly, they must develop know-how that helps them know when each is most effective (or inappropriate). Research shows that these three skills are not optional for global workers. They are of utmost importance if you seek to be effective.


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Dr. Jeff Suderman is a global apprentice, consultant and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


Paula Caliguriuri (2012). Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals.

Unlearning: The new leadership skill

In order to thrive in the future we are going to need to learn how to unlearn. Amidst unparalleled change, leaders can no longer rely on ‘what they know’. Instead, effective leaders will be defined by the capacity to unlearn outdated and ineffective ways of doing things. More importantly, they will also have the capacity to help their organizations do the same.

A recent article in The Futurist defined this as unlearning and uplearning. The authors note, “one of the most important skills in a time of immense change is to develop the capacity to unlearn old ideas that are increasingly obsolete and learn how to reason, adapt, and act at a higher level of complexity”. Here is what this looks like:

Unlearning: This skill requires us to be able to identify and unlearn ideas and activities that have worked in the past but do not work in today or will not in the future. For example, teachers are no longer sole content providers/experts as a result of the internet. This week, I have observed my children being taught in classrooms (bricks-and-morter as well as on-line) as well as through gamification, Kahn Academy, Wikipedia and Google Translate. Their learning comes from many content providers and experts! However, the teacher as the expert is a longstanding tradition that drives our educational system. We need to unlearn how we teach in order to improve education.

Uplearning: The ability to be comfortable working with complex problems, not because you know the answers, but because you are equipped with critical thinking skills . These skills – such as synthesis, adaptability, systems-thinking and a multidisciplinary approach- enables individuals to ‘pull’ themselves into the unknown. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, demonstrates uplearning in his proposed ‘Hyperloop’, a solar-powered transportation system designed to move people between LA and San Francisco in about 30 minutes. There is currently no way to accomplish this dream. However, he believes that a group of people committed to uplearning can learn how to do so.

This change will be challenging if we rely on historic models of education. Richard Ogle highlighted this in his book Smart World when he noted, “Western education is based on two fundamental principles…rational thinking and content of knowledge that already exists … and, by definition, traditional learning looks backward. In a world of radical change, imagination, intuition, insight and innovation are required …and, by definition, learning looks forward”. Education itself must transform by applying unlearning and uplearning principles.

Alvin Toffler once said, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. While the terms unlearning and uplearning may not be common, you can expect them to become cornerstones of effective education and leadership in the decades ahead.

What are the common barriers you encounter that inhibit uplearning and unlearning?

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Ogle, R. (2007). Smart world: Breakthrough creativity and the new science of ideas. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 113.

Budd, B., de la Tega, M., Grove, B., & Smyre, R. (July-August 2014). Creating a future forward college: What if…Collaborations in transformational learning. The Futurist (Vol. 48, No. 4). Retrieved Octtober 21 from