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Beyond Festivals, Flags and Food: Developing Leadership in Cultural Intelligence

Four years ago, I decided to take a leap of faith and leave the comfort of the Ontario educational system to accept a job in Beijing, China, as an international school principal. I thought my experience, training, and education prepared me to apply the leadership skills that I had acquired throughout my 28-year educational career, but I was mistaken! Through reflection after leadership failures, humility, and conversations with stakeholders, I discovered I could use, and apply some of my acquired leadership skills; however, I needed to develop new or enhance my current leadership skills to fit my current context and role.

Most of the leadership training, literature, and information I received was from a white middle-aged man’s perspective. This training was essential and relevant for my leadership success, but none of this information or training ever referenced the need for cultural intelligence or cultural competency as a school administrator. We talked about building school culture, but not about understanding culture in the truest sense of the word—and certainly not its impact on leadership. This realization helped shift my thinking and approach to interactions with staff, parents, and students. It is the basis of my doctoral research. Moving Beyond Festivals, Flags, and Food: Developing Leadership Cultural Intelligence examined how international school leaders developed and enhanced their cultural intelligence.

Making Chinese Dumplings
Making Chinese Dumplings

Cultural intelligence (CQ), is an essential skill that allows leaders to understand, adapt and apply strategies to lead in various cultural contexts. The changing nature of the political landscape, the need for equitable and inclusive practices, and the ability to unite communities and celebrate diversity are imperative for today’s leaders. Leaders with CQ can lead intercultural teams, develop and communicate a shared mission and vision, model expected practices for staff, students, and the school community, prepare future generations of students and educators for the global landscape, and adapt to change as required by society.

Leading in an international school is complex. Leaders must balance the culture of the country, organization, staff, parents, students, and community (Dorfman, 2012). The environment of international schools is always changing, partially due to the transiency of families and frequent staff turnover. International school leaders must learn to navigate the complexities of culture within their unique setting. Culture is layered, and requires leaders to develop knowledge, understanding, strategies, and behavior that is appropriate for the context. International school leaders need to understand and adapt their leadership practices to match the expectations and demands of the landscape in their unique context.

Climbing the Great Wall
Climbing the Great Wall

How can school leaders who are considering or currently working in an international school develop or enhance their cultural intelligence? Here are ten actions for change that develop cultural intelligence shared by the international school leaders in my study.

1. Ask questions of curiosity to individuals with experience who are embedded in the culture and school.

2. Do your research about the country, city, culture, language, history, current affairs, politics, music, fashion, and media.

3. Learn about the desired leadership style of the culture. What do they expect from effective leaders?

4. Investigate and learn the form, context and use of the language.

5. Establish personal and professional networks in your new context.

6. Examine and acknowledge your implicit biases, stereotypes, and assumptions. Develop strategies to combat pre-determined biased behaviors.

7. Immerse yourself in your new culture and community. Go out and enjoy the celebrations and the uniqueness of your new home.

8. Have an open mind and reserve judgment.(check your implicit biases at the door!)

9. Nurture reciprocal relationships based on trust, authenticity, and respect.

10. Be reflective on missteps, misunderstandings, and miscues in order to learn and avoid future mistakes.

Developing cultural intelligence is not a journey that leaders need to travel alone. There are several paths you can take. You may wish to work one on one with a consultant who can coach you on developing specific elements of  cultural intelligence. Attend a course or certification program offered through organizations like the Council of International Schools, International Baccalaureate Organization, or European Council of International Schools. Participate in or watch a webinar created through organizations or individuals devoted to cultural intelligence, diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Use social media platforms like Twitter, Clubhouse, and Linkedin to grow your network. Intentionally seek out and follow individuals that are doing the work in these areas. School districts often have departments or individuals within the system that can support administrators or teachers in learning more about specific diversities. These individuals often have networks within the community that can provide perspective and support to those seeking to develop or enhance their cultural intelligence.

Chinese Opera
Chinese Opera
Banquet at the Presidential Palace Beijing
Banquet at the Presidential Palace Beijing

Cultural missteps, mistakes and frustrations led me on a research journey to inquire into the importance of cultural intelligence and leadership. Cultural intelligence and responsiveness development requires conscious awareness, effort, and intentionality.  Developing cultural intelligence is a process that leaders must continuously revisit as they move between and amongst diverse cultures. The elements of cultural intelligence do not exist in isolation–and influential international school leaders must have the capacity to draw on a wide range of skills and strategies to be a success practitioner of cultural intelligence. We live in a time of unprecedented change along with much uncertainty and must continue to learn from and with one another. Each culture, each context, and each role has something to teach us.  We must work to understand one another better and value the experiences that make us who we are.

Dorfman, P., Javidan, M., Hanges, P., Dastmalchian, A., & House, R. (2012). GLOBE: A twenty-year journey into the intriguing world of culture and leadership. Journal of World Business, 47(4), 504–518. doi: 10.1016/j.jwb.2012.01.004

Luce, A. (2021). Moving Beyond Festivals, Flags and Foods: Developing Leadership Cultural Intelligence (Unpublished doctoral capstone). Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington.

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Ann Marie Luce
Ann Marie is a proud Canadian scholar-practitioner. As an international educator, Ann Marie has served various school communities in Ontario, China, and the United States. Ann Marie is completing her Doctor of Educational Leadership at Gonzaga University, where her research focuses on leadership cultural intelligence. She is excited to share her knowledge and experience and support leaders on their journey becoming more culturally intelligent leaders.

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