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Every Leader Needs Cultural Intelligence – Do You Have It?

cultural intelligence

Cultural intelligence is the ability to negotiate cultural practices, leadership nuances, team distinctions, and communication diversity. These skills are learned while interacting with culture. These abilities are intricate to bridge, yet critical to understand and can strengthen or weaken alliances. Leaders who actively grow their cultural intelligence are in stronger positions to lead through changing circumstances. Here are three postures of a leader with  cultural intelligence.

It’s more than classroom education—it’s real-world education

Classroom education and business acumen will contribute to your leadership development, but in today’s world you need more than just these two elements. Leadership today has many more high-touch experiences with stakeholders and leaders at every level than in preceding decades. Add to this that leaders need to be able to maneuver ever-changing cultural settings. You cannot miss the fact that as your world “gets smaller” business is becoming more globally founded; leaders must be able to understand, appreciate, and support these differences to lead effectively.

Three Postures of a Leader

Posture One | Humility

Leaders who are overconfident are destined to fall. The question is usually how far and how hard. Hubris keeps a leader self-focused and prohibits them from listening carefully to cultural nuances, but humility works hard to be others-focused, taking the position of a learner. Cultural intelligence requires the humility to understand that although you hold some level of expertise in your role and position, you don’t know all things about all cultures. It assumes that while a solution, system, sequence, or segmentation works well in one culture, the same implementation may not work well in another.

Posture Two | Curious

Humility gives way to a leader being curious. The best thing you can do in a cross-cultural situation is to ask a lot of questions and draw people out rather than to talk about ourselves, your methods, and your ideas. In your questions, you should seek to understand, not merely to be understood. You may even need to yield your cultural ignorance or inexperience to build a meaningful connection with others. The more time you spend with someone of another culture, the more you will become sensitive to other cultures and recognize how much you may not know. Such a leader is willing to invite questions and discussion, knowing they may create the best exchange. Being able to encourage others to share their viewpoints is an art in every culture. Keep in mind that, in some cultures, employees are not allowed to challenge a process, and others make decisions by consensus. You don’t know what you don’t know, so be inquisitive.

Posture Three | Sensitive

In conversations and dialogue with those from another culture, whether in a group setting or one on one, it is essential to be sensitive to matters that could be inflammatory. For example, criticism of government, while fine in American culture, may be taboo in another. Remember that each cultural group has a unique worldview, and the fact that it is different from ours does not mean that it is wrong, just that it is different. Even countries that speak the same language—Canada, the United Kingdom, and Kenya, for instance, do not necessarily share the same worldview.

Remember this when interacting with those from a different culture:

  • Our worldview is different.
  • Our collective experiences are different.
  • Our leadership practices are often different.
  • Our practice family is often different.
  • Our view of authority is different.
  • Our social strata are different.
  • Our politics are different.

All this is enough to suggest that humility, inquisitiveness, and sensitivity are critical components in developing cultural intelligence.

Reflection & Mentorship


  • Classroom education and business acumen will contribute to your leadership success, but in today’s world, you need cultural intelligence more than any time in history.


  • How is cultural intelligence vital to the growth of your role in your business?
  • How could growth in this ability contribute to greater dividends in your personal or company mission?


  • What does Covey mean in his quote above? Try stating what he says another way.
  • How is pride “disgraceful” as referenced in the proverb above?
  • The three postures above are soft skills. Why is cultural intelligence more of a soft skill than a hard skill? Or is it something different?


  • What issues do you need to address in your cultural communication?
  • What steps do you need to take to be more effective in communicating cross-culturally?


  • Meet someone of another culture, religion, or different life experience and learn about their life and leadership.


This article is excerpted from Vince Miller’s book, 20 Lessons That Build a Leader.

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Vince Miller founded the men’s discipleship and leadership ministry Resolute. He writes at the ministry’s website and is author of The Generous Life. He lives with his wife, Christina, and their three children in St. Paul, Minnesota.