Leading Across Cultures

Thursday, August 29, 2013

This was originally posted in July, 2011

The AlpsDuring a visit to Germany and the Austrian Alps I got to witness a great example of how to lead across different cultures that I thought would be perfect to share.    While in Austria, we went on a long hiking tour of the Alps. The hiking tour was led by an American man who had moved to Austria 20 years ago so was fully embedded in their culture.  His name was George and on the day of the hike, as the group began to gather, I started to wonder how George would effectively lead us all through a four-hour hike up through a mountain side of the Alps.

The group was made up of a variety of people including Americans, Europeans, Asians and Arabians.  There were different languages being spoken and the age range of the group went from teenagers to people in their early 60’s.  In addition, we were all in different physical condition.  I was quite curious as to how George would successfully lead such a diverse group through our hike of the Alps; however, from when he first started to speak to the group, it was clear he was the leader and would not have any trouble leading us through the day.

Why was this clear?   There were three key things that George displayed: a confident attitude, the posture of a leader, and strong interpersonal skills. These are the traits that seemed to transcend cultural differences and would get us through our four-hour hike of the Alps. So, how did George display these characteristics?

First, he immediately took the stance of a leader when he approached the group.  He spoke with a strong confident tone about what we would be doing and how we would approach the day.  He told us, in no uncertain terms, that the hike would be difficult.  We would be going up into the hills through different types of terrain, which would require good shoes and being in good physical condition.  Immediately, some folks dropped out.

Next, he set the expectations of the day:  Hike up the mountain two hours, stop for lunch for about an hour and then hike back down.  A few more folks dropped out after hearing the actual length of time it would take to complete the full hike up the mountain. George was in great physical shape so it was clear that he had done this numerous times.  His stance, posture and confidence immediately set the tone for the type of day it would be and that he would clearly be leading the pack.

There were 17 of us as we set off on our hike.  As George led us, he did a fantastic job of spreading himself out amongst the crowd and talking to everyone.  Some people were clearly in better physical condition than others and were in the front of the group and others were much slower and lingered towards the back of the group.  And, others were even slower because they wanted to stop frequently and take pictures of all the beautiful scenery.  George treated everyone as adults, letting them set their own pace yet had strong interpersonal skills and did enough mingling through the group (at times hiking in the front, and others hiking in the back) so that he had a good idea of everyone’s comfort level and pace.  Clearly this was the sign of a good leader: getting to know the group, making sure everyone is doing okay at their pace while, at the same time, not slowing the entire group down too much.  There were obvious “resting points” where George would stop, let everyone catch up, catch their breath, check to see if everyone was okay and then we’d move on.  He never waited too long for people and there were several people who turned back half way up the mountain.

George continued to forge ahead towards the goal with those of us who were in it for the duration.  When we finally reached the top, there were 12 of us remaining.   As we began to eat lunch, several people wanted to turn back sooner than others and I found it interesting that they all asked George if that was okay:  could they go back now or did they have to wait until everyone was ready?  George had clearly established himself as the leader of this group.  He did it despite some language barriers and despite the variety of cultural backgrounds of those in the group.  Clearly his characteristics of a confident attitude, a strong leadership stance, and solid interpersonal skills transcended all the cultural differences of those involved in this hike.

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