Cultural Agility: Cross-Cultural Leadership for the 21st Century

Globalization is now as common as sliced bread.  Today, especially within the United States, you can live among many different nationalities and have more languages spoken in your neighborhood than are found spoken in the United Nations.  So how are we to individually and corporally respond to such a globalized world?   According to Angel Cabrera and Gregory Unruh (2012)[i], we have no other choice but to “be global.”  This means learning about other cultures while trying to abstain from being ethnocentric.[ii]  This is what Paula Caligiuri (2012)[iii] calls “cultural agility,” which is the ability to function in cross-cultural contexts with effectiveness, and having the skill to do so as a gentle leader.  Nevertheless, cultural agility is the opposite of what goes on in many businesses and organizations today.

Unfortunately, there are some organizations that are still arguing whether they should become cross-cultural or stay “business as usual.”  Those businesses that stay with a business-as-usual model will soon find themselves obsolete, but those that improve via more culturally agile leadership will have growth and a competitive advantage.

To be effective globally, you and your organization will need three things:

  • A global mindset
  • Cross-cultural teams
  • Empowerment for the organization to be culturally agile

A Global Mindset
Being global starts with a global mindset; as a leader thinks, so is she or he.  You have to be convinced that you need to be global.  Leaders have to gain a viewpoint of the world that draws from other perspectives, traditions, cultures, and unfamiliar frameworks.

Organizational leaders will have to learn the culture they serve in, and be willing to learn how to become sensitive to their surroundings—wherever their profession sends them.  Today’s business context is so often transnational; therefore, leaders need to acquire the ability to view the world through the lenses of others (Cabrera and Unruh, 2012).[iv]  This is the first step to having a global mindset.  Whether in business, government, or social leadership, this skill is vital to one’s success.  If we cannot dare to view things in another way, we limit our leadership, growth, and competitiveness.  Accordingly, continuous cultural learning should be a priority for every leader.

Cross-Cultural Teams
The best CEOs surround themselves with people who possess gifts and talents they do not have: they create teams of diverse members for a most robust competitive advantage.  Research shows that “the use of teams has led to greater productivity, a more effective use of resources, better decisions and problem solving, better-quality products and services, and greater innovation and creativity” (Northouse, 2013, p. 288).[v]  Now, add the component of every member on your team being skilled and talented in a different culture, and this makes for a great cross-cultural dream-team.

Historically, no great leader has ever accomplished anything alone; whether in business, government, or social leadership, every great leader needs a team.  These days, that team needs to be a cross-cultural team if you, as the leader, want to expand your horizons and that of the organization.

Individual interconnectivity through the internet and telecommunications is the new norm.  And no leader should allow their business to be left behind or, worse yet, to become extinct by ignoring the advantages of cross-cultural teams.

Empower your Organization to be Culturally Agile
The only way to shift an organization’s systemic culture from being homogeneous to being diverse is by encountering various experiences and cultural activities.  Building cross-cultural agility and intelligence takes a lot of hard work and, at times, obtaining assistance from coaches and consultants.  This is one of the reasons why many leaders and executives fail to make the transition from domestic to international—it takes effort.  Yet, in this globalized world in which we live, it is an imperative.  Cultural agility is the ability to be effective in many cultures and environments, but this type of leadership effectiveness only comes to leaders through direct exposure of diverse circumstances and life experiences.  It is a lifelong process and not a onetime event.

We can become culturally intelligent by desiring versatility in our thinking, living, and actions.  Leaders have to put forth the effort of thinking, living, and acting outside of the box.  This does not come natural to most of us; therefore, we have to put ourselves in various situations that will help us, and stretch us.  Examples for how we can accomplish this include joining different groups, going to various culture and diversity events, and building relationships with people who are not like us. This will definitely help us to break down our cultural paradigms so that we may grow to become cross-cultural leaders.

  • What can you begin to do today to become a cross-cultural leader?
  • What can your organization begin doing to become more culturally agile?


[i] Cabrera, A., & Unruh, G. (2012). Being global: How to think, act, and lead in a transformed world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[ii] Ethnocentric: noun 1. Sociology. the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnic group or culture. 2. a tendency to view alien groups or cultures from the perspective of one’s own. Ethnocentric. (2005). In online. Retrieved from

[iii] Caligiuri, P. (2012). Cultural agility: Building a pipeline of successful global professionals. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[iv] Ibid. Cabrera & Unruh (2012).

[v] Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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