Leading Across Culture: The Not-So Common Denominator

I recently had coffee with a major university program director and one of her superior students. The subject was leadership and specifically non-profit leadership. The conversation went on to cover a tremendous amount of ground. I am not sure how long we planned to meet but more than three hours from the start our meeting ended. I am sure many of you have had that kind of meeting. Where the conversation was, so engrossing hours felt like minutes.

One of the most-intriguing subjects of the conversation concerned leading effectively across culture. It is amazing how culture is distinguished. What comes to mind when the word “culture” is heard—American Culture, Middle Eastern Culture, Military Culture, and on and on. How is it possible to even begin to lead effectively when a supervisor is to take culture into mind?

Leading effectively across culture can be done. In my well over 30 years of leading Marines and civilians as a Marine officer and senior executive in the business world I would offer there are easily five facets to leading across culture. In respect of brevity, I will address only two. First, and most important, understand what “culture is.” Second, I like to refer to as the—not so common denominator.

We all are a part of a culture and, hold on, a subculture; quiet possibly multiple subcultures. In order to lead effectively, a common denominator is needed.


I often hear the word “culture” thrown around as an excuse to forgive someone or some group because of a perceived foul or failure to perform. We all are part of some culture and, hold on, a subculture; quite possibly multiple subcultures.

A culture is a collection of accepted beliefs that guide behavior.

We find culture everywhere. There is an American Culture—one that most citizens of the United States believe as, a collection of freedoms—the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion and the freedom to come and go as one pleases, to name a few. National cultures are, to varying degrees, known by many and accepted as ways of life.

As a leader, it is good to understand there exists a culture of subcultures. There is the subculture of ethnicities, religions, and the often overlooked and most important, the subculture of economic status. Each of these cultures guides behavior.

Economic status I find as the most-dramatic subculture. It is often misunderstood. Behavior that is belligerent or non-conforming is often misinterpreted as belonging to a group based on their nationality, race, or gender. On closer inspection, it becomes apparent it is the subculture of economic status that is driving the behavior. The subculture of poverty is incredibly difficult. The behaviors associated with it are more defining than any other.

This paper will not address all the nuances of the very important subject of subculture, particularly economic status. It is worth leaders digging into it if you are going to know the people that are being led by you. I will address this subject in a future writing.

I would offer that one employer is very good at understanding and getting the various cultures working together—the U.S. military. There are far too many organizations that are notoriously poor at understanding the nuances of subcultures. Two that immediately come to the fore and most impacted by subculture are educators and law enforcement; each field in dire need of significant improvement in understanding the subcultures they must work with and lead on a daily basis.

Not-So Common Denominator

As we learned in fifth-grade math, the common denominator is the one number “Common” number that allows for the addition of fractions that have different denominators. In leading people, understanding the common denominator, the thread that allows the responsible person to lead effectively across race, gender and culture is as important as the common denominator is to a school child. Finding a common denominator among people is, at best, difficult and seems to be not very common.

The common denominator among people is rarely considered because it requires mental gymnastics. It is not good enough to settle on differences in behavior couched in simple terms of the blinding obvious.

In working with organizations from the large and complex to the small start-up, each understands the need for good planning. Few understand the need to start with a clear, concise, compelling, and shared vision.

Vision is true north of an organization, not a destination. It lives in the hearts of the employees, or those you lead, not just on paper. It cuts across cultures. It unites. It drives the strategy and in turn objectives, and guiding principles of the organization. And guiding principles, or ethics, governs the behavior of those you employ.

A shared vision, to an organization, becomes a “not so common denominator” among a diverse group of people. It unites a diverse organization to one cause, to accomplishing the task, to being a force to be reckoned with.

My observation over the years is that little if any attention is paid to start with establishing a vision. It is the single greatest effort undertaken that will provide the ability to lead across culture effectively. Most would rather jump into strategy development; it always seems to be the sexier thing to do.

Are you having disciplinary problems from those you are expected to lead? Do you have a clear, concise, compelling and shared vision—probably not? Without one, you will never become truly effective at leading. Your organization will never reach its full potential.