Thursday, January 27, 2011

How the Mighty Fail: Lessons in Leadership (Part 7)

3. – Contributing Environment
    The third component of the "Toxic Triangle"

This is Part 7 of "How the Mighty Fail", based on "Driving Straight on Crooked Lines"  I'd like to suggest you read the first six parts and then this installement. One builds upon the other.
The impact of culture on Fr. Maciel

For the past many years authors on cross-cultural communication, such as Geert Hofstede, Edmund Hall, and Fons Trompenaars have illustrated how cultural differences affect our behavior. Their work has provided us with the intellectual framework, the specific terms and the dimensions of culture to open our eyes to the differences in behavior, communication, and management style which are influenced by culture. In my own work as a management consultant with multicultural leadership teams, I often start by helping team members examine the values, beliefs and assumptions of their own native culture before they try to understand a different culture.

It is important to learn how geography, history and religion impact our values, beliefs and assumptions which, in turn, shape the characteristic behavior of a group. This "characteristic behavior" is what I mean by culture. Participants build a model to understand the dimensions of their own culture using the framework of values, beliefs, and assumptions.  When this is done they move on to examine the points of convergence and divergence with the other cultures represented in the team. The point is to learn to recognize and respect the differences. Only then can the team begin to “reconcile the dilemmas” – as advocated by Trompenaars – which can arise from the clash of cultural differences.

The Dutch researcher Hofstede designed a framework of cultural differences using four “Cultural Dimensions.” 

1.    Uncertainty avoidance:
This indicates the extent to which a society feels threatened by ambiguous situations. It ultimately refers to man’s search for Truth. In uncertainty avoidance cultures, people tend to minimize the possibility of novel, unknown, or surprising situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures. On the philosophical and religious level there is a belief about truth:  ‘there can only be one Truth and we have it’.

Mexico’s highest Hofstede dimension is Uncertainty Avoidance (82). This score suggests the ultimate goal is to control everything in order to eliminate or avoid the unexpected. As a result, on a deep cultural level, Mexicans do not readily accept change and is very risk adverse.

The Legion of Christ, founded by Fr. Maciel, was a total "uncertainty avoidance" culture. There was only one truth without tolerance of ambiguity; every aspect of member's lives was totally regulated by a compendium of strict rules and norms. In addition, all members made a solemn promise never, ever to criticize any Superior (including Fr. Maciel) and to report all transgressions directly to him.

2.    Individualism and its opposite collectivism:
This dimension indicates the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. Some cultures foster loose ties: everyone is expected to look after themselves and their immediate family. Collectivist cultures tend to integrate people into strong, cohesive in-groups. For instance, often the extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) continue protecting family members in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. Such cultures prefer strong leaders to bring people together, in part to absolve the members of working out conflicts directly and to provide solidarity and group identity.

Mexico is a collectivist culture. This is manifest in a close long-term commitment to the member 'group', be that a family, extended family, or extended relationships. Loyalty is paramount, and is more important than most other societal rules and regulations. The society fosters strong relationships where everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of their group.

During my time with Fr. Maciel's organization, it reflected some of the traits of a collectivist culture. Loyalty to the founder was a sine qua non. This created a certain lack of mutual trust among the members which negatively impacted their interpersonal relationships. The organization was entirely inward looking. Contact with "outsiders" was strictly regulated and discouraged unless it served to further the aims of the organization.

3.    Power distance:
This refers to the difference in authority, status, and privilege between individuals. Followers in high Power Distance cultures, especially those with low educational levels and big differences in wealth distribution, are more tolerant of the power imbalances that are associated with tyranny and despotism.

Mexico ranks higher than other Latin neighbors in Power Distance (a rank of 81, compared to an average of 70.) This means that the population is more inclined to accept a high level of inequality of power and wealth within the society.

In the Legion of Christ we were trained to accept, without question, the "power" and authority of Fr. Maciel.

4.    Masculinity:
Masculinity and its opposite, Femininity, refer to the distribution of roles between male and female values. The women in “feminine” countries have the same modest, caring values as the men. In the “masculine” countries women are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men. Hence these countries show a gap between men's values and women's values.

Mexico has the second highest Masculinity ranking in Latin America. This suggests the Mexican culture experiences a higher degree of gender differentiation of roles. A significant portion of the society and power structure is dominated by men. This situation allows a female population to become more assertive and competitive, although not at the level of the male population. I think this dimension is less relevant to an analysis of Maciel's leadership.

In my experience of the Legion of Christ I have no doubt that "sentimentalism" and "emotions" were not encouraged. Our lives were governed by the dictates of our "character," our reason, and strict adherence to a very detailed set of rules and regulations.

In cultures that are high on the avoidance of uncertainty, more collectivist (as opposed to individualism), and tending towards high power distance, “dark leaders” are likely to find a more propitious environment than they might encounter in the “opposite” cultures.

The Hofstede Model of Cultural Dimensions is useful for classifying the differences between the cultures of different countries. However, it is important to remember that these “Dimensions” are generalizations. The average score attributed to a country does not relate to individuals of that country. Therefore, not all individuals or even regions within a country fit into the model. As always, there are exceptions to the rule.

I use the model to suggest the possible impact of Mexican culture, as classified by Hofstede, to shed some light on the early leadership style of Fr. Maciel.  Maciel was born and raised in the Mexican State of Michoacán, in the center west of the Mexican Republic.  Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are not a “law set in stone.”  However, the culture in which we grow up certainly affects our leadership style - and Fr. Maciel was raised in the cultural framework described above. Understanding the framework can shed some light on his leadership style. Culture does not produce "better" or "worse" leaders. No matter their native culture, all leaders, are vulnerable to the "dark side" of their personalities which can come to the fore in times of frustration and stress

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