One Size Fits All?

"Like it or not, we're dominated by American management processes. It's a reality, but it's not necessarily good."

The comment came over dinner with four senior managers from four different countries last night, one from the US, one from Asia, and two from Europe.

There was some resignation in the speaker's voice, but also a frustration at the lack of cultural awareness that can be seen in multinational organizations.

It seems that the Financial Times (or at least one columnist writing in its pages) would agree. This quote appeared in Monday's edition: "Many models of western business schools do not suit other cultures. Go a few hundred kilometres from the main urban centres in Europe and you enter a different reality." ("One Leadership Model Cannot Fit All Cultures").

Both the rueful executive at my dinner table and the Financial Times writer are correct--one size does not fit all when it comes to leadership. Good leaders seek to understand the circumstances and then adapt their style to those circumstances in order to reach the goal. It is a big mistake to stick to any model when circumstances call for something different. Models can end up being handcuffs, so good leaders learn many approaches--they have a full toolkit that they can reach into and find just the right solution.

Interestingly enough, a model that does seem to be universal is the Enneagram. My four companions and I had spent the previous few hours talking about their personality styles; the two Europeans were both Threes, the Asian and the person from the US were both Nines. They were different of course, everyone is unique while also sharing characteristics with others of their same Ennea-type. There were also noticeable cultural differences among the four. However, both the Nines were hampered from being more effective in their roles by their tendency to overdo their striving to be peaceful; both Threes were hindered by their striving to be outstanding. Those tendencies manifested in slightly different ways, but the patterns were clear.

It was a fascinating conversation to hear of the complexity of working with peers from other cultures and dealing with bosses and subordinates in an even wider range of cultures, struggling with an organization attempting to force a homogenous leadership style onto them. Coming up with a single solution to such a high-level of complexity is a fool's errand. But it was great to see how the Enneagram could serve as an anchor, something that truly was universal that could be used as a compass to help each leader pick out the right path.