A Crisis Demands Culturally Adaptive Leadership

By Hamlin Grange, Principal Consultant, DiversiPro Inc.

Depending on whom you listen to, the current COVID-19 virus outbreak is either just a bad flu or a healthcare emergency of pandemic proportions. Either way, it is a crisis situation. And in times of crisis, the need for competent leadership is important.

We continue to live in polarized times where each “side” is engaged in an ongoing fight against each other, refusing to meet in the middle — in that space where they could better understand each other.

Rather than closing this great divide, the current health crisis appears to have exacerbated it.

Some people are referring to this coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” which only feeds into some individuals’ xenophobic and racist tendencies. Some in the younger generation, believing they are immune to the virus, have blithely referred to it as the “boomer remover.” But in this worldwide health crisis, there is no “them” or “us”; there is only “us”. We need leaders who can lead others to that in-between space; that space of reconciliation, understanding and inclusion.

More than ever, we are dependent on each other for goods, services and food. The simple act of going to the supermarket to buy a zucchini or a tomato drives home the reality that we are all interconnected: from the person who had to plant the seed, to the person who nurtured it to maturity, to the individuals who picked it, packed it, shipped it, received it at the supermarket and put it on the shelves, and the person who buys it, we are all connected. If one of those links in the supply chain is interrupted there is no zucchini or tomato to buy. The same can be said for other more vital and life-saving items such as respirators.

Recognizing this interconnectedness in a deep and meaningful way requires leaders who understand their own limitations and those of others on their teams. In times of crisis, people need different things in a multitude of ways. They communicate and process new information differently. Cultural differences also influence how groups interpret and interact with the world around them.

People are demanding better and more…they want better service, more patience and understanding, clearer and trustworthy communication. The old expectation that people will simply go along with someone in authority no longer holds. They are demanding that leaders become more adept at shifting their perspectives and changing their behaviours in order to more effectively lead those who deliver information and services.

The culturally adaptive leader knows this and responds accordingly.

It’s important for leaders to understand that some people are very concerned about getting the latest scientific facts, others are more focused on the bigger picture, while others want to know precisely what to do to be safe and when to do it. Still, others are concerned about the impact on people and what’s being done to help those less fortunate.

This will require leaders to sometimes step back and allow others who are capable to deliver the appropriate message to specific audiences. By adapting their approaches to a diverse audience, culturally adaptive leaders can better communicate their message and lead more effectively.

The current health crisis will pass. Lives will be lost or indelibly changed. But the changes and new leadership requirements it has brought will not all disappear. A new normal will be left behind. Being a culturally adaptive leader is one of them.

Whether in the workplace, the community or in the nation at large, we will need leaders who can effectively navigate and bridge across cultural differences — whether those differences be generational, national, ethnic or other. Such leadership skills can save lives.

Now is the time for leaders to lead, not only with their heads, but with their hearts. Now is the time for leaders to adapt how they lead to meet the challenges before us and what is ahead.

Colleagues at business meeting in conference room

The attributes of a Culturally Adaptive Leader:

  1. Having the ability to effectively lead a diverse team through challenging situations.

Research has found that multicultural teams require a different kind of leadership because different perspectives and approaches based on cultural differences may have to be considered in decision-making and differences become more evident in times of crisis.

  1. Is aware of their personal cultural worldview and its influence on decision-making and how they lead others.

We are all a product of our cultural “programming” and in times of stress we often revert to a particular style of resolving conflict. Being aware of your personal “style” will greatly influence how effectively you lead others in a time of crisis.

  1. Understands and appreciates the cultural worldview of others and its impact on how they work and process new information.

How and where a person spent their formative years will have an impact on how they view and interact with the world around them. A leader who understands and appreciates this reality is better able to leverage the unique abilities of others in order to solve complex problems.

  1. Listens with empathy.

Listening without judgment allows leaders to emotionally connect with other people with compassion, understanding and feeling. This is most important in times of crisis when someone needs to be seen and heard.

  1. Is unafraid to be vulnerable.

Culturally adaptive leaders consciously choose not to hide their emotions from others. They admit when they are wrong or when they don’t have all the answers. Being vulnerable is a strength, not a weakness in a leader.

  1. Is an intentional lifelong learner.

Culturally adaptive leaders commit themselves to constantly expand their horizons by exploring new ideas and approaches. They work on understanding themselves so they are better able to understand others.

Hamlin Grange is a diversity and inclusion strategist who has worked with leaders in a wide range of sectors, including law enforcement, post-secondary education, social services and media.


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