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To lead cross-culturally, be like a cheetah


The late Ghanaian economist and scholar George Ayittey distinguished between Africa’s ‘hippo’ and ‘cheetah’ generations and advocated for the latter. Because the cheetah is one of the most agile animals and features among the most successful hunters, it’s an appropriate analogy for business leaders on a culturally diverse continent.

Ayittey described the cheetah generation as opportunistic, fast and agile. In the continent’s multicultural melting pot, a fundamental component for effective leadership and organisational success is cultural agility.

The inevitability of diversity

Because of globalisation and the technology that helps drive it, business leaders worldwide have increasingly been confronted by the demands of cross-cultural leadership, and especially since the end of the Cold War,

It is not only that business has increasingly taken place across national borders and, therefore, between different cultures. Staff complements have become more diverse than previously – and without companies necessarily having to employ foreign nationals, although this is also a characteristic of the modern age.

In other words, cross-cultural leadership need not be limited to international or cross-border business relations or the inner workings of a multinational corporation.

I am privileged to have travelled to several destinations, including Europe, South America and across my home continent, Africa. These experiences have included working in and engaging with culturally diverse groups.

The need for cross-cultural leadership in Africa’s business sector has become even more certain following the founding in 2018 of AfCFTA.

That said, the most diverse and demanding environment I have been exposed to was in my country of birth, South Africa, which only involves South Africans. With 11 official languages (and soon to be 12) with as many, if not more ethnic groups, it is, in the words of some commentators, “a treasure trove of diversity.”

Even on this continent, some business owners and leaders may have managed to keep their staff makeup largely homogenous. But this denies the potential benefits of a diverse workforce, particularly in a culturally diverse environment.

The need for cross-cultural leadership in Africa’s business sector has become even more certain following the founding in 2018 of the African Continental Free Trade Area(AfCFTA). This agreement aims to enhance Africa’s economic integration and the free migration of persons.

In 2018 McKinsey published a piece aimed at global business leaders, touting Africa’s business revolution. The following year, the Brookings Institution described Africa as “the world’s next big growth market.”

The challenge of leading diverse teams

Citing leadership in cross-cultural situations, Shazeb Ali writes that leadership in a globalised world “is like walking a tightrope.” The greatest test of cross-cultural leadership I have faced was while undergoing basic military training in South Africa.

In the year of my military intake, recruits came from different economic, educational, religious, family and ethnic backgrounds – all distinctions that make for cultural diversity. Living and working together in close quarters, under the added pressure of sleep deprivation and intense physical activity, led to frequent misunderstandings and flare-ups in the early stages of our training.

Although this wasn’t a business environment, it taught me how challenging cross-cultural leadership could be. Leading in a culturally diverse environment is more demanding than in a monocultural one because success depends on steering people – be they colleagues or potential clients – with different values, beliefs and behavioural norms in the same or the desired direction to achieve a specific goal.

Cultural agility is the secret sauce

Suppose you intend on building an African business made up of the best available talent and one that serves or sells to a sizable share of the market. In that case, you will need to develop your cultural agility.

This is something Distinguished Professor of International Business and Strategy and author of Build Your Cultural Agility, Paula Caligiuri, defines as the ability to “accurately read the cross-cultural or multicultural situation; assess the differences in behaviours, attitudes and values; and respond successfully within the cross-cultural context.”

In a culturally diverse environment, cultural agility is a prerequisite for effective leadership and enhanced business performance. Conversely, the absence of, or a poorly developed skill in this regard, can prove costly for a company in financial terms and even in the loss of life.

For example, an employee who remains culturally incompetent or insensitive in a foreign country or a culturally diverse environment can cause significant damage to a company’s reputation and brand.

Research in Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind by Geert Hofstede shows that the experience of culture shock among business leaders working abroad can have several adverse effects. These include the premature termination of assignments and increased need for medical attention due to stress-related health issues and mental illness that, in some cases, has led to suicide.

Developing cultural agility as a business leader is no easy task, but it is essential in guaranteeing that diverse teams and groups working together are at ease. Give it some thought.

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