4 Things Star Wars Teaches Us About Cross-Cultural Leadership

…IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY….

As our churches and organizations become more diverse, leaders are faced with the challenge of engaging followers from different backgrounds, generations, and cultures. 

Culture plays a significant role in how leaders interact with those around them. Behaviors and traits that are valued in one culture may not be acceptable in another. For example, people from Asian nations tend to place a lot of importance on the group/team, while those from North America (mainly Canada and the United States) are more focuse the individual. Small differences in worldview can mean big challenges for leaders of volunteers. Leaders need to be able to effectively lead people who are different from them. So it’s important for us to understand how to relate to our volunteers while also doing what is best for our organization.

Star Wars has been a pop culture phenomenon for decades, inciting internet memes, fan fiction, merchandise, costumes and theme park attractions. Although I’m no Star Wars expert, our family recently watched the movies and as we did, I began to observe connections between cross-cultural leadership and this blockbuster series. Here are the four lessons Star Wars taught me about how to engage followers from different cultures. Let’s start with one of my favorite characters from the Star Wars saga…Chewbacca. 

THE CHEWIE PRINCIPLE: LOVE TRANSLATES

You might assume that I learned this lesson by watching the main love interests, Princess Leia and Han Solo, interacting on screen. However, I believe the real romance is found between Han and his loyal sidekick Chewbacca. Despite grunts and throat gurgles that only they can understand, the audience knows exactly what they mean to each other and are privy to their heartwarming bromance. They clearly demonstrate that the power of love transcends cultural boundaries.

Love translates into any language. No matter where you are from, you just know when someone loves and respects you. Even when there is a cultural gap, followers instinctively understand when their leader loves and cares about them. Leaders who operate in the global environment must demonstrate their affection through agape love which is unselfish, self-giving, not self-seeking, and does not expect love in return. In fact, love (and belonging) is one of Maslow’s basic necessities. This can be attributed to our deep-rooted need to feel affirmation by those we work, live and interact with every day. Love is an important aspect of leadership that works as a motivator to individuals from any nation. Especially in global environments, research shows that employees who feel loved, valued and respected tend to work harder.

THE JAR JAR LESSON: SOFT SKILLS CAN BE LEARNED

Star Wars also taught me that the ‘softer’ skills which contribute to effective leadership can be learned (like emotional intelligence, communication, and teamwork).

 In the newer films, supporting character Jar Jar Binks is just plain annoying! He lacks the social skills and personal discipline which often results in trouble. However, there is one scene where Jedi Master Qui Gon Jinn carefully corrects Jar Jar because he believes him to be capable of changing.

I once worked on the same floor as Dave, a manager of a different department. Dave was brilliant. Technically adept at a wide variety of skills, he was often put in charge of large projects that had nothing to do with his job description just because of his extensive knowledge. The only downside to Dave was his lack of what researchers call ‘soft skills’, those skills that focus on emotional intelligence, leadership, and inspiring others. After a particularly difficult meeting with his superiors Dave was frustrated and took his anger out on his assistant (something he had done several times in the past). His behavior was noted by another manager on our floor named Louis who pulled him aside. Louis took the time to sit with him and explain why yelling at his assistant was, to quote Louis, “not nice”. The simplicity of the statement struck a chord with Dave. He was embarrassed that his actions had been seen around the office and had resulted in his reputation of being a mean boss. He went to his assistant the next day and apologized, something he would have never done in the past. He also apologized to others on the floor who had experienced his outbursts. There was a noticeable transformation in Dave over the next few months. Even though he occasionally had minor mishaps with colleagues and his personality was still a little abrasive, there was a definite change in overall behavior and attitude.

Soft skills are often learned through personal experience and reflection. One-on-one coaching and mentoring are also valuable ways to further develop the leadership skillsets necessary in the global environment. Leaders can sharpen their global leadership abilities by asking others for feedback and being open to constructive criticism. Vulnerability and respecting other’s opinions are keys to learning soft skills.

THE EWOK STRATEGY: OBSERVATION BEFORE ACTION

Leaders cannot charge headfirst into a new situation without first observing the behaviors and culture of those they are working with. It is key (especially in global leadership) to carefully scrutinize new environments before interacting. We learned this lesson when Han, Leia, and Luke battled the primitive Ewoks. When they are first sighted by their enemy, Han decided there wasn’t enough time to think up a plan and instead impulsively ran out to attack them. He believed that the Ewoks would be easily defeated due to diminutive size and lack of technology. However, the furry little creatures surprised everyone with their cunning traps and aggressive fighting style.

Research has shown that observation is a key component of learning socially accepted behaviors. As we look around in nature, we learn that most behavior is learned from observation. In order to fit in with the other kids at school, a child will watch the others before acting. The same principle applied to leaders operating in other cultures. Before leading a group of individuals from different cultures, leaders should take the time to observe and learn about their values, norms, accepted practices, and behaviors.

THE YODA FACTOR: HUMILITY IS KING

The greatest example of a humble leader in the Star Wars saga is Yoda. The little green alien with strange speech patterns is beloved by fans everywhere. It’s not his venerated position or incredible fighting skills that earned him this reputation. Rather, it is the simple way that he unobtrusively serves those he teaches. With bowed head and a soft-spoken voice, this Jedi master guides those he leads with their best interests at heart.

One of the most common misconceptions about leadership is that those who lead are always attractive, strong-willed, and charismatic. However, some of the best leaders are made of the most unassuming individuals. Servant leadership is based on the theory that a leader’s primary concern should be to serve followers while helping them achieve their fullest potential [7]. This means leaders put the needs and desires of their followers before their own, and seek to encourage and promote followers instead of themselves.

MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU

Star Wars may be a sci-fi fantasy but the lessons learned from the series are applicable in real world scenarios. Leaders who add these principles to their repertoire will be able to better interact with followers despite cultural differences. Communication will be richer because leaders are focused on the needs of their followers. This selfless abandonment of pride allows leaders to effectively guide those who live in cultures that are different from their own. Star Wars teaches us that engaging in cross-cultural leadership requires sacrifice, humility, love, respect, vulnerability, observation, and patience. Leaders who work in a global environment have the choice to focus on sharpening these skillsets in order to be more effective across cultures.

As Yoda reminds us, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

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