When Minnesota Compass and the Bush Foundation began collaboration on the Who Leads in Minnesota? project, the team started with the premise that, for Minnesota to be its best, we need talented leaders from all backgrounds to make our institutions work well for all.

Leaders shape our institutions. They define organizational culture and make decisions that have long-standing and wide-ranging impacts on people and communities.

But what shapes our leaders? Here are some thoughts, and some questions to ponder.

Culture: the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group

Oxford English Dictionary

Culture influences perceptions. It plays a role in the ways individuals interpret and respond to the world around them. So when leaders seek to influence perception and shape how individuals and organizations react and respond to changing circumstances, it is often through the lens of their culture.

A survey of leaders that asked whether people in different cultures demonstrate different styles of leadership found significant differences between leadership styles and cultural groups, suggesting that respondents see leadership in different ways.  

Research has also shown that national culture orientation and intercultural communication competence tend to affect leadership style and approach.

Authenticity, vulnerability, and cultural sensitivity are important for leaders to be effective. It matters that leaders are reflective of and responsive to the diversity of those they employ and serve. If we are to understand leadership, it is important to draw meaningfully from the cultural experiences that shape leaders and how they lead.

Demographics: the qualities (such as age, sex, and income) of a specific group of people

The Britannica Dictionary

Drawing connections between culture and leadership without considering demographic characteristics ignores the role identity plays in shaping our leaders.

Leadership is learned. But leaders are born with demographic characteristics that, in many cases, form their cultural background and experience. Researchers have taken note of traits, characteristics, and behaviors that lend themselves to credibility and influence

Ascribing characteristics for communicating, perceiving, and responding to external circumstances isn’t straightforward. For an individual to become a leader it is important to recognize the role demographic characteristics play in shaping their cultural experiences. Lessons leaders draw from those cultural experiences influence the leadership they exercise.

Questions for your organization

Although leaders themselves can only lead given their personal experiences, culture influences how they lead, and demographic characteristics shape cultural experience. Take some time in your organization to discuss the impact of culture and demographics on leadership.  

  1. What connections are fair to draw between leaders and their backgrounds, and which conclusions are unfair to draw from the cultural characteristics of leaders?
  2. In what ways should demographic characteristics with clear connections to social and cultural experiences impact the ways leaders lead?
  3. Research shows that how a leader communicates and prioritizes new norms and expectations can influence employee adoption of those norms. How should leaders think about the organizational culture that they work to influence in light of the cultural backgrounds of their employees? How does culture impact how leaders perceive, react to circumstances, respond to challenges, and mobilize resources to motivate individuals and organizations to perform?
  4. Since both culture and leadership influence perception and shape how individuals and groups think and behave, how should we think about ways to create the necessary space for leaders to show up authentically?

Next steps

Meet the Author

Justin Hollis

Research Scientist