Beginner's Guide to Culture and Thought Leadership

10 Tips to Help You Become a Global Thought Leader

To be a thought leader in today’s global environment, intercultural communication and collaboration are essential skills to master. When people from around the globe interact online there are a number of cultural factors that influence how thought leaders and their followers and fans communicate. No matter where you are in your thought leadership journey, these 10 pro tips are designed to inspire you to consider how your culture and that of your followers and fans impact your community.

Tip 1: Do Not Ignore Culture

To communicate effectively online, people essentially have to learn another culture. Everyone has their own culture, that is their ethnic culture, but the culture in their home country, whether that be the UK or Canada, is very different from the culture in countries like Korea, Indonesia, Nigeria, or China. And when we look at thought leadership we find that there are different rules about how to lead, express an opinion, inspire others, or share the know-how of how to replicate success. Similarly, the rules for how followers and fans get involved online and critique or praise others differ. And so, when thought leaders and their community come together in what is a unique ‘online culture’ they have to learn a different set of rules and there is a chance that there might be some misunderstandings.

Tip 2: Know Who Is Responsible

There is a major cultural difference that is referred to as a difference between high and low context cultures. This concept comes from anthropologist Edward T. Hall, and it refers to whose responsibility it is to understand a given message. So, in North America -a low context culture - it is the responsibility of the thought leader to make sure that the message is understood. North American thought leaders want to give all the information necessary so they tend to be very specific and very detailed. They also tend to over-explain. To avoid lawsuits, conflict, or challenges they strive to be transparent and clear in their communication because it is their responsibility. However, followers from high context cultures such as China, Korea, or Japan might feel that over-explaining is insulting because in their culture it is, to a greater extent, the reader's responsibility to figure out what is being said.

Tip 3: Rethink Feedback

Other cultural differences that influence online interactions is how feedback is given and/or perceived. In some cultures (e.g. French or Belarusian), feedback is very direct and it is acceptable for it to be negative. Whereas in Canadian culture, for example, people tend to be very polite and give feedback as a 'feedback sandwich' (i.e. where constructive criticism is sandwiched between two ‘slices’ of positive feedback).

So, a thought leader from France who is used to fairly direct negative feedback, might not hear the message and rationalize: “Well, I got two positives and one negative, I don’t really need to respond”. Similarly, in Chinese culture, feedback that might seem slightly negative and constructive for a Canadian might sound extremely negative to someone for whom it feels like they are losing face when they are receiving negative feedback.

Tip 4: Clarify Your Role

Another issue that influences online interactions is how both sides perceive the role of the follower and the role of the thought leader and how much initiative is expected from each side. So, in high power distance cultures (e.g., France, Belgium, Malaysia, the Arab World), the thought leader is expected to take most of the initiative, followers and fans expect the thought leader to guide them through each step. Conversely, thought leaders from low power distance cultures (e.g., Germany, the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Nordic countries) expect to foster an interdependent relationship. They promote inquiry, self-reflection, they inspire people with groundbreaking ideas, and they expect action in return. They add value to the conversation through their expertise and then encourage a community to grow organically. Thought leaders from high power distance cultures may expect to dominate and drive the online community.

Tip 5: Nurture Your Community

All thought leaders, regardless of culture, must identify with their community, build trust, and provide guidance and insight. One thing that thought leaders from any culture can do to help their audience is to articulate clear expectations. One aim of a thought leader is to generate engagement and they can do this by encouraging followers (especially those who may be acting more like passive bystanders) to ask for clarification or to encourage them to share their reactions to the content or to express their own personal voice. A useful reminder to all thought leaders is not to jump to conclusions about the meaning of a follower or fan’s comment. If a thought leader gets a comment that sounds harsh or hurried, they may attribute negative meaning to it. It is important to stop and reflect on what they might have meant from a different context or cultural perspective.

Tip 6: Understand Turn-Taking

Even though a lot of online communication takes place asynchronously, another issue is how people from different cultures take turns in conversation. So, if there is an online discussion, how do people know when it's their turn to contribute? For example, in some West African cultures, women contribute when the men are done talking. But in an online environment, how do you know when someone is ‘done’ and when does contributing become interrupting? Thought leaders obviously do not know the gender of their followers. However, understanding that turn-taking varies across cultures allows the thought leader to take a proactive and interactive stance to generate discussion that adds value to the entire community.

Tip 7: Understand Influence

Another interesting cultural difference that can occur online is ‘circular visiting’ where the follower doesn’t get straight to the point. They might describe a story or approach the issue by dancing around the point and starting from fairly far away. A follower from the First Nations culture in Canada might talk about their grandmothers when discussing influence. A fellow follower from another culture might react with ‘This is way off-topic, why are you talking about grandmothers?' In this case, the thought leader has a golden opportunity to encourage the discussion to evolve and bring everyone closer to appreciate how culture influences the way we participate online. So, just because the discussion starts far away from a topic it might not be irrelevant because for some cultures it is very relevant, it just takes a while to get to the topic.

Tip 8: Understand Writing Structures

Another factor to keep in mind is cultural differences in writing styles. In a number of cultures (e.g. Hungarian, French) it is valued if the writer takes a while to get to the point. Being vague is valued since it is not considered classy if you give away the real idea at the very beginning. What is valued is if you keep the suspense to the very end. In another example, the storytelling formula of thought leaders in some cultures (e.g. Korean, Chinese) is organic where multiple stories spiral around and finally merge. American thought leaders, however, start with a statement that gets right to the point, then they elaborate on that, then they restate it again so that there is value in repetition.

Tip 9: Understand Leadership

One of the tests to become a thought leader is understanding your community and knowing that leadership varies across cultures. For example, thought leaders that promote internationalisation or globalisation need the intercultural competence to communicate not only across national cultures in their field of expertise but across the cultures of disciplines, because each discipline has a unique culture and leadership requires an understanding of what is valued in each area of expertise.

Tip 10: Embrace Intercultural Competence

Intercultural competence is a very important skill to develop. Thought leaders often promote change so it is crucial to understand how fans and followers view change. Thought leadership involves authenticity, trust and a lot of self-disclosure and it also involves the risk of possible embarrassment. There is also the threat to one's identity because when we delve into other cultures we find that our way of doing things is not necessarily the only way and it may not even be the right way. And for a thought leader, this can be difficult to accept. Ultimately, to grow a global community, thought leaders must be able to navigate resistance to culture’s influence for themselves and their followers. They can do this by following a proven model of intercultural sensitivity. The first stage is defence, where we feel threatened by difference and change, then there is the minimisation stage where we focus on similarity rather than difference and then the final stages are acceptance and adaption.

To be a global thought leader, acknowledge culture’s role, develop your intercultural sensitivity and experiment with your content, content structure, and engagement style. If you begin with these tips and apply them to your leadership platform, you are well on your way to growing into a truly global thought leader.


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