Multiculturalism. Is it just a buzzword, a New Age fad for the new millennium? Or is it a meaningful concept, important to leaders now and in the future?
Growing up in the Midwest, I learned that America was a melting pot in which different cultures contributed their own distinct flavors, literally and figuratively, to American culture. There is no doubt truth to that, but how limited my worldview was through college and even into my early career. Other than a girl named Tiku, who joined my 7th grade class as an immigrant from Uganda following Idi Amin’s seizure of power, my exposure to people from different cultures was fairly limited to the occasional missionary who visited my church, often a transplanted Westerner who shared his or her experiences working in some far-flung place. In fact, there wasn’t a lot of focus on the distinctly different cultures in America, for example, African American culture or Native American culture, or even Southern culture, beyond a few units in Social Studies from time-to-time. I daresay, that was the experience of most of my friends—eating tacos (our version of Mexican food), chop suey (the only Asian meal anyone I knew ate), and of course spaghetti and pizza did little to expand our knowledge or understanding of other cultures. Misperceptions about different people, who hailed from different cultures, abounded.
Since my childhood, American has experienced a sea change in culture, perhaps because of the growth in population of individuals from different cultural backgrounds because of immigration and shifts in birth rate. Perhaps the changes are attributable to less of a willingness of immigrants to assimilate to the extent immigrants did in the past–many immigrants indeed are proud of their cultural heritage, continuing to speak their language and observing their traditions openly. Or perhaps the change is because we are more cognizant that we are part of a global economy, involving a great deal of movement of people, goods, and services that require interacting with individuals from a variety of different cultural backgrounds in a variety of different settings.
Whatever the explanation, we assume, in fact we hope, that most leaders recognize and accept the premise that to be effective leaders in this multicultural world, one must intentionally work to develop and maintain cultural intelligence, which moves beyond learning about differences to connecting on deeper and more meaningful levels. Cultural intelligence starts with pursuing cultural competence which is the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures. Culture is defined as the values, norms, and traditions that affect how individuals of a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave and make judgement about the world. As my colleagues outlined in Chapter 17 of their book, Fundamental of Lawyer Leadership, developing cultural competence involves five steps: 1) being aware of differences; 2) addressing implicit bias; 3) developing an attitude of openness; 4) gaining knowledge and understanding of different cultural practices; and 5) developing cross-cultural skills.
Toward that end, this month’s challenge involves a focus on cultural intelligence. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will address these different steps, and as we do, we invite you to share your thoughts and experiences about cultural intelligence.