Business leaders must exploit cultural diversity and learn to reconcile conflicting values if their companies are to weather the global economic downturn, a leading management consultant said today. Fons Trompenaars, an author and the managing director of the Netherlands-based Trompenaars Hampden-Turner Consulting, told a leadership lecture in Abu Dhabi that traditional teachings on management are flawed because they tend to prize one set of values over others and ignore the benefits of reconciling a multitude of approaches to solve problems.
"The only competence a leader has that goes beyond culture is the competence to see dilemmas," he said. "What leaders do is bring these viewpoints together and come to one viewpoint." Mr Trompenaars described two sets of values - he termed them the "universalistic" and "particularistic" - that are commonly at play in corporate cultures. The "universalistic" values include consistency, clarity, adhering to a system and following the letter of the law, while the "particularistic" favours flexibility, pragmatism and ease with ambiguity. Different cultures in different parts of the world tend to gravitate towards one or the other, and the belief, he said, has long been that they are mutually exclusive - that leaders must choose where they stand on a strict linear continuum between them. The better approach, he suggested, was to meld them.
"What leaders need to do is connect the universalistic and particularistic," he said. Another example of how reconciling differing approaches to dilemmas could work, Mr Trompenaars said, was the question of whether to give big bonuses to individuals who performed well or to reward successful teams. Neither is ideal because big bonuses for individuals tend to discourage teamwork, while team rewards tend to reduce the incentive for individuals to perform well.
The traditional middle ground has been to create smaller teams. But the more constructive approach, Mr Trompenaars said, was to "reward teams for individual creativity and reward individuals for team work". This new way of thinking about leadership - what Mr Trompenaars called "servant leadership", in which a leader resolves dilemmas creatively and gives the people under him the tools to succeed - is especially crucial now, when companies face all sorts of unforeseen challenges.
Mr Trompenaars' talk was part of a series of lectures on leadership planned this year in Abu Dhabi. firstname.lastname@example.org