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Leadership and Power Across Cultures

I am surprised each time anew when I witness the gap that exists between how any culture perceives itself and how others perceive it. In the workshops I conduct for global companies, we always discuss various kinds of cultural gaps, such as in styles of speech, how trust is built and, of course, organizational hierarchies as well.

Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede (1928 –2020) was an IBM employee and the first person to use an important research tool to map different cultures on a scale. Hofstede described cultures in terms of six dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity, Long Term Orientation, and Indulgence vs. Restraint.

Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations in a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. Hofstede’s website shows each country’s rating. The higher the score, the greater the Power Distance. Here are a few sample countries:


Following Hofstede, the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) project further analyzed the effects of Power Distance on management style.

According to GLOBE research, for example, leaders in organizations with high power distance are likelier to give orders than consult with their employees. And when the power distance is low, superiors are more open to discussion, and employees are more likely to speak up or challenge management.

For optimal communication, we all need to embrace an understanding of cultural differences and strive to be respectful and sensitive to one another. We must ask questions along these lines:

  • Is it acceptable to skip management levels in our company regarding ideas, requests or complaints?
  • Is it okay to disagree with our manager at all, and is it okay to do it openly, meaning in front of others?
  • When we are the boss, do we consider ourselves part of the team and behave as such, or do we set ourselves apart?
  • How do we show respect towards people from our own culture? (And to people from other cultures?)

In most countries there’s a correlation between the degree of hierarchy (high/low Power Distance) and the way decisions are made. But not in all countries! Therefore, Erin Meyer (born 1971), an American author and professor at INSEAD Business School best known for writing the book The Culture Map, offers another cross-cultural dimension by posing questions such as: How do we make decisions? Who decides and how? Meyer describes a spectrum running from “consensual” to “top-down.”  

Consensual means that decisions are made in groups perhaps also involving multiple meetings over time.

Top-down means that decisions are made by individuals (usually by the boss, and quickly).


In an HBR article titled “Being the Boss in Brussels, Boston, and Beijing,” Meyer beautifully combines the two relevant spectrums: 

Attitudes toward authority: the range goes from “egalitarian” (for what Hofstede calls “low power distance”) to “hierarchical” (instead of “high-power distance.”)

Attitudes toward decision-making: the range goes from “consensual” to “topdown”

This dual approach provides us with deep understanding of different leadership and management styles depending on location. 

The United States combines an egalitarian (low Power Distance) culture with a relatively top-down approach to decision making (like Israel). In Japan, in contrast, both a hierarchical system (high Power Distance) and consensual decision making are deeply rooted. The Japanese have a management technique in which low-level managers discuss any new idea among themselves and come to a consensus before presenting it to the managers one level higher. 0nce that higher level has approved the idea, it is passed up to the next highest managers, and so forth. Thus, the system is hierarchical (bottom-up) and consensual at the same time.

By the way, the power distance score assigned by Hofstede to Japan is 54, which might appear not as high as we would expect, right? But now that you understand a bit more about Japanese tradition, and how hierarchy and decision making are two different cultural dimensions, it’s probably less surprising.

The fascinating subject of cross-cultural communication, and in particular the management of diverse groups in international organizations, demands a certain degree of commitment. Ideally, we will each exercise cultural curiosity, open dialogue, and the ability to accept those who are different from us, no matter how much we may or may not know about their culture at any given time.

In many of the workshops that I provide for managers and employees from different countries, I elaborate more on the importance of manners and respect as opposed to the definition of Power Distance. So, here’s some food for thought:

Is there a correlation between power distance and manners? For instance, does the way we approach our managers (using their first or last name; addressing them by their title; even having a seating order at the table, etc.) impact a country’s hierarchical systems or is it only a matter of manners? Are they related at all? Is one a cause or effect of the other, or are they both manifestations of a greater cultural dimension?

These days, as so many companies are expanding their worldwide presence, they would do well to ensure that their leaders and employees all know the different expectations and behaviors in both low and high Power Distance cultures. I invite you to read more about the topic of cross-cultural communication, how to build a global mindset and OLM Consulting’s services on the company’s home page at

OLM Consulting Founder

Osnat Lautman is a well-known intercultural expert and the author of the Amazon bestselling book ‘Israeli Business Culture’. Osnat is passionate about cultures, connecting humans and breaking through culture barriers. She created the ISRAELI™ model of Israeli business characteristics (Informal, Straightforward, Risk-Taking, Ambitious, Entrepreneurial, Loud, Improvisational) to reveal the foundations of the Israeli innovative culture. Osnat supports many organizations and individuals to effectively connect and engage with Israelis, avoid misunderstanding and maximize the value of combining the innovative Israeli spirit into a multi culture environment.

Osnat is the founder of OLM Consulting and her customer include the Manufacturers’ Association of Israel, The Jewish Agency, Verint, NYU Tel Aviv, the British Embassy, the Swedish Embassy, the Belgium Embassy, FIDF, Israel Defense Ministry delegation in New York, JCC Association, National Bank of Australia, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 888 Holdings, Corning, SkyVision, ObserveIT, MX1, Israel Export Institute, StartApp, Tel Aviv Municipality, and many others.

Osnat lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, from 2009 to 2013. During this time, she started her extensive research on the differences between Israeli and non-Israeli business cultures, including video interviews with businesspeople from numerous origins. The recorded discussions are incorporated into her lectures and workshops for demonstration purposes.

Osnat holds:
M.A in Social Science and Communications, Bar Ilan University, Israel
Certificate in Organizational Development, New York University, New York
Coach License from Co-Active Training Institute, Israel

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