Global Success Means Cultural Literacy


In my line of work, I travel quite a bit. I’ve lived in a number of different places around the country and around the world, and I’ve seen a great deal of the world. One of the many benefits of living that way over the past 27 years is a deep appreciation for cultural literacy. To be culturally literate is to seek to bridge cultural gaps by doing your best to understand another’s culture–their language, social customs, and history. It cannot be done from afar, it must be done in person.

WaPo blogger Christopher Ingraham learned that lesson first-hand after writing a piece translating the USDA rankings for natural amenities into a declarative statement calling Red Lake County, MN, “The absolute worst place to live in America.” Commendably he traveled there and saw the place, met the people, and breathed in the air–and predictably, he came away with a different point of view. Minnesota and Washington DC are both in the USA of course, but it was a micro-lesson in cultural literacy, and a lesson in seeing beyond mere data from charts and reports.

Says Mr Ingraham:

I was worried that 36 hours would be too long a visit, that we’d run out of things to say or do and end up sitting in silence, staring at corn. But I left feeling like I’d barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and know about the county and the people who call it home.

To a certain degree, I suppose, we all suffer from an urge to be, well, provincial in the way we view others. After all people are different–we live in vastly different places, dress differently, speak differently, worship differently, and eat different foods. The diversity of humanity is so expansive; anthropologists spend lifetimes and fill volumes with what we know and what we are learning. I’ve had the privilege of seeing that diversity first hand by meeting and interacting with people from all corners of the globe during my service in the Air Force. Sometimes it’s be daunting–how will we ever bridge the gap between our own lived experience and the people we meet for whom what we take for granted they marvel as if it were magic? Is it even necessary to try to be culturally literate?

For leaders, it’s extremely necessary.

…from the sole proprietor all the way to the C-suite, not being culturally literate is synonymous with being left out of the marketplace.

Global mobility and a global marketplace mean we are in contact with people who aren’t like us, usually daily. An entrepreneur in Europe can contract with a manufacturing plant in Mexico or China, then sell the product in America, with social media and PR assistance from freelancers in the Philippines or India. That means that everyone from the sole proprietor all the way to the C-suite, not being culturally literate is synonymous with being left out of the marketplace. It’s certainly true that military leaders have to be culturally literate as we work with our allies and partners across the globe to maintain the peace and fight extremism. For all of us, particularly for leaders, learning to meet people where they are and find common ground and common purpose is a prerequisite for high performance.  To do that, we have to engage personally, and recognize each of us has something to offer. Not everyone is a perfect fit, of course, but we can’t let external differences keep us from leading teams to high performance. And of course, “teams” can be everywhere if we look.

Cultural literacy is a bridge to performance and teamwork.

My experience as an Air Force officer has borne out the idea that cultural literacy builds teams. Time I spent making an effort to be culturally literate was always valuable. Being aware of local customs, religious sensitivities, and history are all ways to become a better guest–or host as the case may be. Even something as small as learning a few phrases in another’s language like “yes”, “no”, “please”, and “thank you” is a bridge to greater understanding and teamwork. Each time I step into another’s world and walk around a bit, I appreciate their point of view. That sometimes becomes a shared view, even if it’s only a slice of each other’s culture, helps each of us find common ground. Cultural literacy is a bridge to performance and teamwork.

After travelling so many different places during my career, I still find that despite the even significant cultural differences, most people want the same thing: honest work, to raise their families in peace, and enjoy their lives. When we find common ground through our shared human values (e.g. Truth, Beauty, Love, etc.) we can build a team from the most unlikely and diverse groups. Cultural literacy helps leaders build strong connective tissue, and that enables them to lead teams to high performance.

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