Leadership Style and Cultural Orientation

While it often appears that the most popular leadership approaches are developed based on Western – especially US-American – ideal, it is more likely that the majority of employees in the world follow a different tune. As the influence of emerging markets such as China, Brazil, Russia, or India on the global economy continuously increases, different perspectives on leadership and their underlying ideals become more essential to learn and understand. Leadership style and cultural orientation can be a source for team performance but can also become a trigger for conflict and underachievement at the same time.

Motivated by exploring cross-cultural effects of leadership, we investigated differences between American and Brazilian leaders and subordinates across cultural dimensions and the relationship of potential differences among leadership norms. A preferred cultural pattern in terms of individualistic versus collectivistic; and vertical versus horizontal orientation was assessed and compared by country. We followed the idea that a participative leadership style, which is an ideal of the American approach to leadership, may trigger negative feelings in Brazilians as the latter appreciate collectivistic ideals over individualistic ones. This might be so due to many Brazilians expecting inequality of power and social status.

The leader is not following the leader’s role

For instance, when an American leader is sent on an expatriate assignment to manage a team in Brazil, the local team may perceive a participative leadership style as an indirect message communicating the idea that “the leader is not following the leader’s role.” When there is a match between leadership style and subordinates’ expectations, the leadership style is more effective for the organization.

American versus Brazilian preferences. By investigating American and Brazilian employees in government organizations, most American employees preferred a horizontal-individualist cultural pattern. In contrast, most Brazilian employees preferred a horizontal-collectivist one. Results also showed that Brazilians have a preference for a less participative leadership style than Americans. The leader must make autocratic decisions and, in this way, exert the leader’s intrinsic power. On the other hand, Americans might believe that the leader should ask for subordinates’ input to coordinate a group successfully, and in this way, gain participation from the whole group, hence demonstrating an inclusive mindset.

Implications. In a multinational team where the manager comes from an individualistic culture, and subordinates are from a collectivistic culture, the manager might wish to consult subordinates and openly discuss different possible solutions for a given work problem, following a participative leadership style. On the contrary, however, subordinates might see the manager’s behavior as increasing personal disputes, and thus aggravating the problem. What this study showed is that, due to cultural differences, Brazilian subordinates might even be passive in such discussions because participation is not their preferred leadership style. On the other hand, managers without knowledge about the preferred leadership style of their subordinates might interpret this lack of participation as a lack of commitment to the group. Culture may certainly not be the only factor affecting the preference among various leadership styles. Nonetheless, when compared to other factors such as the economy, culture is probably the most stable factor that drives leadership thinking.

Culture is probably the most stable factor that drives leadership thinking

We suggest that the findings can be used in the refinement of leadership training to reflect on cultural influences. Every culture contains its own strengths that can be used in leadership training. For example, American leaders and their willingness to use subordinates’ participation may be exploited in training to help a team to achieve goals together. By contrast, Brazilian leaders and subordinates and their openness to accept autocratic leadership styles can be used in training to help the team to achieve goals more quickly. Formalizing the influence of leaders’ and subordinates’ cultures on leadership may be a good way to train and develop effective leaders.

Cláudio V. Torres, University of Brasilia, Institute of Psychology, Dept. of Basic Psychological Processes. Brasilia, DF – Brazil.

Bernardo M. Ferdman, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University. San Diego, CA – USA.


Torres, C. V. & Ferdman, B. M. (2000). Do social norms have an influence in leadership stylepreference? Assessing leadership style differences between Americans and Brazilians (Ph.D Dissertation), retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, accession order no. AAT 341606.

Torres,C. V. (2005). Liderança e Valores Culturais: Dois conceitos inter-relacionados? [Leadershipand Cultural Values: Two interconnected concepts?] In: A. Tamayo & J. Porto (Eds).  Valores e Comportamento nas Organizações [Values and Organisational Behaviour], 1st Ed,pp. 187-201. São Paulo, Brazil: Vozes.

Nogueira, A. H. A., Torres, C. V., Guimaraes, T. A., & Lucas, E. C. (2002).  Cultural patterns and styles of leadership: A comparative study among Brazilian and American employees. The 8th Bi-annual Conference of the International Society for the Study of Work and Organizational Values, Work Values and Behavior in an Era of Transformation. Academy of Humanities and Economics in Lodz, Poland, pp. 332-339.