Does Gender or Cultural Background Influence a Leader in Leadership?
1 year ago
Does gender or cultural background of a leader really matter in leadership? It has been an ongoing debate for time whether gender and cultural background of the leader poses several challenges while leading an organization in a multicultural setting. In order to investigate the above problem, we have chosen a Sydney-based education provider, Master of PTE led by an expatriate female leader. The aim was to investigate the challenges an organization face with expatriate female business leaders having cross-cultural backgrounds. The survey unfolds several challenges the Master of PTE face with the gender and the cultural backgrounds of the top management. Simultaneously, the investigation highlights leadership style of the organization in the light of transformational leadership theory and explores how to overcome the challenges to lead the organization more effectively.

Are Leaders Really Born and Not Created?

Coined early in the 20th century, the notion of leadership has been discussed in various academic literatures including management, strategy and psychology. While early research on leadership focused on theory and practices, researchers lately aim at more thorough understanding of leadership qualities (Eagly, 2007). Notably, leadership is not more viewed as an ‘inherent ability’, but regarded as a skill to be developed and extended using leadership styles to motivate followers and enable them to achieve organizational goals (Caldwell and Dixon, 2010). Global leadership research, on the contrary, started gaining popularity in 1990s and aims to identify sets of competencies specific to global leaders (Bird and Mendedhall 2015).

When categorized by methodology, studies adopted qualitative approaches have mainly used case studies, interviews and anecdotal report approaches, while quantitative ones comprise of focus group, questionnaire and observations aiming to unearth attributes, competencies, skills and traits associated with global leadership (e.g. Yeung and Ready, 1995; Emerson, 2001; McCall and Hollenbeck, 2002; Nohria, 2009. The first of its kind, the study of Yeung et al (1995) analysed 1200 managers in cross-cultural settings and identified a global manager has to be able to articulate a tangible vision, related values and strategy, a catalyst for strategic and cultural change, possess a result orientation, possess a customer orientation and able to empower others. Notably, leaders can acquire these traits through experience and carefully devised training.   The notion that leaders are born, not made has shifted to leaders are created through training (Zhou, 2017; p.309)

Two Dominant Leadership Types: Transactional and Transformational

Besides leadership ‘types’ and ‘styles’, contemporary research focuses on exploring the behaviour that constitute effective leadership underpinning the notions of transactional leadership and transformational leadership (Jogulu, 2009). Burns (1978) first coined these notions and explained their differences, but after modification Bass (1985), Burn (1978) and Bass and Avilio (1989) brought the notions to organizational psychology and management.

Burns defined transactional leaders as people who emphasize work standards, and have task-oriented aims, while transactional leaders perform their leadership within the organizational constraints and adhere to the existing rules and regulations. They aim to make sure that all the regular organizational tasks are completed on time. Power, authority and control are rooted in this behavior because organizational targets are achieved by rewarding or disciplining subordinates in the style of a transaction. The implicit understanding was of a task needing to be carried out and, if satisfactorily completed, a reward would be forthcoming. Such reward-based action was intended to influence and improve employee performance (Burns, 1978).

Transactional Leadership and Transactional Leadership (Burns, 1978)
A quick review of related literature reveals that transformational leadership (TL) as a concept was first coined by Burns (1978) and detailed later by Bass (1985) in his seminal work. TL theory is built upon the notion that a leader should be able to recognize the compulsion for change and create the vision that the subordinates would strive for achieving focusing on the exchanges infused by the leader (Burns, 1978). Related literature suggests that transformational leaders act as a ‘role model’ to motivate their followers and inspire them to build morale in order to complete the ‘set goals’ (e.g., Vizeu, 2011). While researchers discuss diverse characteristics of transformational leader based on the ‘original four’: Charisma, Individual Consideration, Inspirational and Intellectual Stimulation (Bass, 1985, 1997), a meta-analysis on existing literature unfolds the several elements that the ‘leader’ uses to motivate their followers.

Leadership literature recommends that a leader need to be visionary and charismatic. They must be able to identify and articulate the right vision for the organization and create a sense of power through providing an appropriate model to their followers (Bass 1985; Avolio, Bass and Jung 1955; Podsakoff, MacKenzie and Bomer 1996). Besides, they must be adoptive enough to foster acceptance of group goals. This will make them goal-oriented and high-performing personalities. However, pursuit of goals needs to be supported by their ability to mentoring and inspiring the followers and intellectually stimulate them to bring out the best among them (Gomez and Cruz (2007); Vito, Higgins and Denney, 2014). At the same time, leaders should have the ability to generate a more stable and stronger relationship between all stakeholder through mutual influence (Ramsey, Rutti, Lorenz and Barakat 2016). In fact, the underpinning basis of TL is the ‘emotional connection’ that the ‘leader’ bases on while utilizing the ‘trust and confidence’ of their subordinates to inspire them (Vito, Higgins and Denney, 2014).

Transactional versus transformational leadership (Bass and Avolio, 1990)

A co-citation analysis discloses that literature pertaining to TL predominantly focuses on the effectiveness of the theory on individuals and organizations based on the above characteristics (Figure 00) as quantifiable performance indicators, mostly applying quantitative methods such as surveys and case studies from a positivist orientation (e.g. Vito et al, 2014), whereas a narrow line of research empirically investigates the antecedents of TL (e.g. Cavazote, Moreno and Hickman, 2012). It is generally agreed in literature that TL of expatriate managers has a significant influence on organizational performance (Zhou, 2017).
Transformational Leadership in a Cross-cultural Setting

In a cross-cultural setting TL is extremely relevant in that it impacts on team performance (Gundersen, Helles, and Raeder, 2012), employee outcomes including job satisfaction and performance as well as addressing challenging situations and improve organizational performance (e.g., Lee, Veasna and Wu, 2013; Dubrin, 2013; Zhou, 2017). Empirical results suggest that charisma, individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation and inspiration not only help the expatriate leader to maintain emotional attachment with the followers, but also provide supportive environment and diminish stress (Zhou, 2013). A growing body of research, although conducted on larger multinationals, proves that TL of top managers in multi-cultural organization has a significant positive effect on managerial performance, good governance and financial performance (e.g., Michelberger, 2016; O’Connel, 2016).

Some studies examine the relationship between TL and culture, and conclude that ‘collectivistic cultures’ are conductive to TL, whereas cultural values play a key role in the connexion between TL and leadership effectiveness (Jung, Bass, Sosik, 1995; Dorfman, 1996; Madzar, 2005). Cross-cultural management researchers often debate whether and to what extent management practices are transferrable across cultures. In one hand, they believe that globalization has made cultures ‘alike’, they also argue that culture steeped in a deep value system is unlikely to change (e.g., Hofstede, 1995), which is relevant in leadership study especially in explaining leadership behaviour (Muenjohn and Armstrong, 2007) and the core of the present investigation.

Ethical Leadership (EL): A Contemporary Challenge

Extant literature defines Ethical Leadership (EL) to be normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal interactions with the subordinates using two-way communication (e.g., Brown, Trevino and Harrison, 2005). Specifically, ethical leadership is related to consideration behavior, honesty, trust in the leader, interactional fairness, socialized charismatic leadership (as measured by the idealized influence dimension of transformational leadership), and abusive supervision, but is not subsumed by any of these. Finally, ethical leadership predicts outcomes such as perceived effectiveness of leaders, followers’ job satisfaction and dedication, and their willingness to report problems to management.

Ethical leaders endeavor to transform the ethical behavior of their subordinates by communicating ethical standards, establishing ethical behavioral models and controlling the ethical behavior of subordinates.As the studies pertaining to EL are developing, evidences show that EL has positive effects both on individuals and on the organizational effectiveness (Arda et al, 2017).   
Unfortunately, although leadership and even behavioural science literatures pay scant attention, if any at all, to the above ethical dimensions, some interview-based qualitative research explore EL from organization-members’ perspective (Arda, Aslan and Alpkan, 2017) and focus further on ethics and integrity in leadership (Chen and Hou, 2016). The extant literature discusses basic leadership attributes: care, ethical conduct, fairness, honestly, openness in communication, principled decision making, role-model in behaviour and trustworthiness, and determines their importance for organizational effectiveness (e.g., Johnson, 2005; Bavik, Tang, Shao and Lam, 2018).

Culture, Gender, Leadership and Ethical Leadership

Empirical evidence shows that there exists a correlation between leaders’ cultural background and gender, and ethical leadership. For example, Ayman (2004) proves that gender and culture determines identity, interpersonal interactions, group cohesion and perception of a leader. Gender itself is responsible for leaders’ attitudes, values and gender schema (Ayman and Korabik, 2010). Therefore, leaders’ culture and gender influence their leadership style and behaviour (Qureshi, Zaman and Bhatti, 2011) while negativework-atmosphere, cultural background, cross-cultural setting and gender are evidently barriers to Ethical Leadership (Ostwal, 2017).

Preference of different cultural clusters for each leadership dimension (CISL, 2017; p.12)

The Study on Master of PTE – Background

Headquartered in Sydney, Master of PTE is a post-secondary training provider that provides coaching for Internationational English Language Testing System (IELTS), Pearson Test of English (PTE) and National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters NAATI Examinees. Establisherd in 2012, the organisation has managed to establish its branch offices in Melbourne, Rockdale and Perth, and are providing preparation supports to students from more than 15 countries including Bangladesh, China, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Viet Nam. Its founder and CEO is Kiran Sing, who was born and educated in India, but migrated to Australia in 2008 (Master of PTE, 2018). While the top managers of the company are females and from a cross cultural background, most of tis employees are Australian, which has created a cross-cultural environment causing the organisation to experience some challeneges to lead their orpational team specifically due to clear differences in the rites, rituals, symbols, myths, beliefs, values and perceptions between the management and employees (Schneider, Barsoux and Stahl, 2014). Besdies, the management team here comprises three females, which is another leadership challege for them.

The study aimed to undertake research on the leadership challenges within a clearly bounded case, ‘Master of PTE’, a post-secondary training provider based in Sydney from which data would be collected and theory might be built through qualitative perspectives (Walliman, 2011). Founded by a female leader born and educated in Bangladesh, the organization is managed by three females migrated to Australia in 2008 and having a cross-cultural background while most of its employees are Australian. This creates a cross-cultural environment causing the organisation to experience some challenges to lead their optional team specifically due to differences in the perceived cultural and language difference as well female leadership (Schneider, Barsoux and Stahl, 2014).

The sample for the study consists the CEO and the three Managers of the organization. While the researcher himself is a non-executive partner and holds the authority to disclose information needed for the research, both of the participants duly signed ‘Ethics form’. The data were collected separately from each participant through interviews using a questionnaire, developed based on the research objectives, which enabled the researcher to ground the questioning in the literature. Using Giogi’s (2009) analytic approach, the answers were recorded and the scripts were read several times in order to seek patterns and similarities. Emerging themes were reviewed against the answers noted in word format during the interviews. A table was completed to display the subjects and brief explanatory comments along with emerging themes, which were reviewed once again to determine the common and prominent themes to ensure that the responses and intent of participants were not lost (Merriam and Tisdell, 2016).


A thorough analysis of the collected data unfolds several leadership challenges Master of PTE is facing with their expatriate top-management. The issues identified are discussed below with relevant references to literature.

Ø  Communication, Coordination and Team-building: An Ethical Leadership Challenge

Coming from a relatively individualistic culture, where gender gap is relatively high, the participants lack openness in communication with the teaching team that consists of five Australian males, accustomed to collectivistic culture. The teaching team during observation were also found a little cautious while interacting with the management. A group discussion reveals that the teachers do not have sufficient cross-cultural awareness, which leads them to keep a distance so the female executives do not feel disheartened. This is an ethical leadership challenge because it is not only affecting the two-way of communication, but also leaving negative impacts on interpersonal interactions as well as on organizational effectiveness (e.g. Brown, Trevino and Harrison, 2005). This has also impacted on the job satisfaction of teachers, who in turn are unwilling to report their problems to the management, which has made the working environment unpleasant (Arda et al, 2017).

Surprisingly, it is not the language barrier but lack of ethical elements that hinders ‘trustworthiness’, ‘coordination’ ‘team-building’ and ‘sharing common goals. Notably, the top-management often suffer from inferiority complex, and try not to involve the teacher in decision-making process, and thus, lacking ‘principled decision making’ (Johnson, 2005; Bavik, Tang, Shao and Lam, 2018). As a result, Master of PTE Leaders have considerably failed to establish ‘ethical behavioral models’ and control the ethical behavior of subordinates (Brown et al 2005). Therefore, as Ostwal (2017) states, establishing ethical leadership overcoming leaders’ gender, cultural orientation and negative working-atmosphere through openness in communication, right coordination and effective team-making is the key-challenge of the organization.

Ø  Lack of Vision, Motivation, Adoptive Mind, Emotional Attachment and Organizational Performance: A Transformational Leadership Challenge

The data analysis also unfolds that the top-management has to a great extent failed to infuse the right vision among the followers. Whilst the management feels that teachers ‘often seem to be non-participative’ in achieving the targets, the teaching team often seems to be demotivated and not emotionally attached with the management. They have a feeling that the management is not adoptive to the spirit of Australian philosophy and perspectives. For example, the management is unwilling to facilitate learners and teacher to interact more through extra-curricular activities such as excursions or debating competition, which is a barrier to expected results. The teaching team also feel that they are not being heard, and are not a part of the decision-making process.

In summary, the top-management lacks Vision, Motivation, Adoptive Mind, Emotional Attachment and Organizational Performance, which are extremely relevant to transformation leadership theory, a leadership style recommend for a cross-cultural setting, in that a transformational leader should be visionary and infuse the vision among followers (Gomez and Cruz, 2007), while they have individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation and inspiration to maintain emotional attachment with the followers in order to create supportive environment and diminish stress (Zhou, 2013). As O’connel (2016) states, TL of top managers in multi-cultural organization has a significant positive effect on managerial performance, good governance, employee motivation and organizational performance.

The findings are consistent with the empirical evidence that shows that there exists a correlation between leaders’ cultural background and gender, and ethical leadership. For example, Ayman (2004) proves that gender and culture determines identity, interpersonal interactions, group cohesion and perception of a leader. Gender itself is responsible for leaders’ attitudes, values and gender schema (Ayman and Korabik, 2010). Therefore, leaders’ culture and gender influence their leadership style and behaviour (Qureshi et al, 2011) while negative work-atmosphere, cultural background, cross-cultural setting and gender are evidently barriers to Ethical Leadership (Ostwal, 2017).

How to Overcome the Challenges to Lead the Organization Effectively

The study explores how to effectively manage leaders’ background, cross-cultural setting and gender and concludes that the following approaches of a leader can effectively help them lead their organization successfully:

ü  A leader must be visionary and goal oriented. Set clear vision and infuse that to all staff. Deliver exceptional performance and expect high performance from followers (Bass, 1985).

ü  They should act as a role-model. Create a ‘sense of powers’ and provide an ‘appropriate model’ to the followers (Bass, 1985).

ü  They need to include the staff members in decision making. Be a good listener, so followers do not feel that they are ignored. (Vito et al, 2014).

ü  They should adapt transformational leadership and develop the behavioural aspects detailed in it, as it is the right style for a cross-cultural setting (Gundersen et al, 2012).

ü  They have to lead their team more ethically and responsibly in the light of ethical leadership perspective. Being honest with subordinates counts most (Pew Research Center, 2015)

ü  Leaders should be individualistic in thinking and focus on each staff separately to make sure that they feel emotionally attached (Bass et al, 1990)

ü  They should be more adoptive and open in communication. Learn how to influence mutually in order to generate a more stable and stronger relationship with subordinates (Ramsey et al, 2016)

ü  They must accept cultural differences and adopt the local culture to lead the team more effectively. Manage your emotional attachment to home-culture, as active emotion is conflicting in cross-cultural setting (Lindquist et al, 2012)

 -     Dr Munshi Joy, Research Scholar, Western Sydney University