How to Make Leadership Training more Cross-Culturally Relevant

How to Make Leadership Training more Cross-Culturally Relevant

leadership training and development model

Developing leadership development and training programmes based on the principles from the cognitive process model may produce more effective results in mixed cultural contexts.

As the world has become a lot smaller and more connected with the development of global digital communication and work tools, one of the problems many leaders and managers face is how to lead and manage culturally diverse work forces and build relationships with suppliers and customers around the world. The level of global interconnectedness adds a whole new level of complexity to leadership and management. Leaders need tools to help them take cultural differences into account.

This new global reality makes leadership training and development more complicated, especially for programmes that are operating in international contexts. There are a few common problems leaders encounter whilst attempting to apply leadership theories they have been taught.

Training and development

Problems with applying current leadership theories

The first problem begins at the very root of understanding leadership. Definitions of leadership and understanding what leadership is varies widely from culture to culture. Some cultures focus more on the behaviours associated with specific styles of leadership, whilst others concentrate more on the nature of the relationships created between leaders and followers, for example . A misalignment between different understandings of a foundational concept can make leadership training confusing and ineffective, especially in multi-national organisations.
Different cultures have very different ideas of what leadership qualities or characteristics are needed in different contexts . High levels of concept diversity has been found to make choosing a leadership theory to follow very difficult for trainees from different cultural backgrounds.

A similar issue, known as cultural colonialism or imperialism, exists whereby leadership models tend to be based on specific cultural perspectives and values. Western-oriented models dominate international discussions, the research literature and leadership training, even though they tend to be less effective and relevant in other cultural contexts.

  • In countries like Russia, the UK and the US assertive, outgoing visible leaders tend to be more effective.
  • Japan finds leaders who are less visible, more support / servant oriented to be more effective.
  • Leaders in places like Mexico and Spain are more effective when they are from a different class and demand respect.
  • Leaders who are more humble and part of the team do better in places like Malaysia and Laos.

Whilst global leadership theories are designed to be widely applicable, issues still arise with their use. When analysed there are three types of theories and models:

    1. Universal – leadership is a set of generalisable behaviours that are useful, regardless of cultural or geographic context.

    2. Normative – global leadership is distinct and focuses on cross-cultural or multicultural contexts, so should be applicable anywhere.

   3. Contingency – leadership is situational so it varies from one cultural context to the next, which means that leaders should focus on their followers’ cultural preferences rather than specific behaviours or approaches.

Hypothetically, global leadership theories should offer a practical solution to the problems caused by other culture-centric theories and models. Part of the problem is that knowing that a culture values specific leadership traits does not provide guidance about how to lead multicultural teams, nor does it make a leader from a different culture effective within that culture. Consequently, a different type of leadership theory/model is needed.

leadership training and development

Cognitive leadership process model

The intention of the cognitive leadership process model is to base leadership principles on the way the human brain works, as that provides a measurable constant.

The model states that leadership emerges as a result of interactions between organisational actors and that this creates fluid meanings in specific social situations for limited amounts of time. The model shows that leadership is a momentary event made of a series of social processes that are controlled by biological functions in the human brain. These are the same, regardless of cultural influence.

This could make establishing an internationally accepted definition of leadership easier, along with making associated practices and values more consistent and relevant for culturally diverse participants in training and development programmes.

Previous research

Previous research looking at issues with applying leadership theories and models has found that:

  • The majority of currently available leadership theories and models are western-centric, which makes them irrelevant in many contexts.
  • The spread of US-centric models, like servant leadership, transformational leadership and charismatic leadership, represents a form of cultural imperialism .
  • Cultural colonialism/imperialism demonstrated by the domination of westernised leadership theories has damaged the economies and cultures of developing countries .
  • Many western leadership models are too idealistic and based on the mythical hero’s journey that ends in triumphant win. This is both unrealistic and impractical, especially in other cultural settings.
  • Culture-bound leadership theories tend to fail to represent the needs of leaders from other cultures
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A new study

A new study by researchers from Frostburg State University in Maryland has looked at issues concerning the use and development of leadership models for training and development in international contexts.

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The study found that the cognitive process leadership model is potentially useful in dynamic multicultural global environments. The six principles that guide its application are:

  1. Awareness – the brain naturally scans the environment for information to allow individuals to make decisions and achieve goals. Leadership development processes that enhance and develop self-awareness, as well as the awareness of followers, about their environment (including the cultural environment) tend to lead to better leadership outcomes.
  2. Attention – it is important that leadership development processes help leaders understand what they are (and aren’t) paying attention to. What we pay attention to tends to be what we are aware of and what we focus on. Programmes that help leaders purposefully direct their attention and the attention of their people to more systematically important issues tend to work better.
  3. Decision-making – leaders use the important information to make decisions that will help followers, work teams and/or organisations reach their goals. Understanding how decisions are made in different contexts can be vital in multinational contexts.
  4. Relationship building – emotional and behavioural responses between individuals during social interactions determine the quality of interpersonal relationships between leaders and followers. The factors that count as a good relationship differ in different contexts.
  5. Communicating – leaders influence their followers, which includes activities like the interpretation, evaluation and monitoring of how information flows. Communication styles can have a significant impact in different cultural settings.
  6. Action – how leaders act and get people to take action will be interpreted in very different ways.
leadersip training and development

Based on these guiding principles, researchers provide suggestions for leadership training and development in a culturally diverse, global context:

  • Training content should primarily focus on leadership as a momentary occurrence that includes the principles of the cognitive process model.
  • Trainees should identify and analyse past moments of personal leadership in their own cultural/environmental context and the impact it might have in different contexts.
  • Trainers should teach the cognitive process model and its associated principles by highlighting how the human brain functions in leadership contexts.
  • A historical review of leadership theories and models should be studied by trainees to determine which are closest to their cultural contexts and how to apply them effectively.
  • Formal and informal learning opportunities should be provided along with coaching.
  • Trainees should be taught to develop competencies associated with the cognitive process model’s principles via demonstrations and practice.

Trainees can then identify future leadership moments or opportunities and create a plan of action for applying the cognitive process model’s principles.


McClellan, J. (2021). Addressing the problem of global leadership theory: proposing a cognitive process model for leadership training and development. European Journal of Training and Development.

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Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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