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Intercultural exchange starts by looking at yourself

On 7 May students from the Leiden Leadership Programme (LLP) and the International Leiden Leadership Programme (ILLP) gathered with an interdisciplinary panel to have a discussion about Intercultural Leadership.

A SMART panel

“A good leader is SMART: Specific, Measurable, Agreeable, Realistic, and Time-efficient. At least that is what was taught in my time as a student”, Gep Eisenloeffel explains.
This year’s Intercultural Leadership Conference - a conference for the LLP students and their ILLP counterparts -  started with consecutive introductions of the five guest speakers to the audience of honours students. Gep Eisenloeffel (assistant professor in International Management & Culture), Aernout van Lynden (journalist & war correspondent), Liesbeth Minnaard (assistant professor in Literary studies), Peter Rodrigues (professor of immigration law), and Sascha Varkevisser. (organiser and student of Anthropology) came to share some of their personal experience of intercultural leadership in their respective fields of expertise.

Looking at yourself

Opposed to an outdated SMART-model, Gep Eisenloeffel emphasized the importance of a more sensitive leadership approach, especially in an intercultural environment. Likewise, Aernout van Lynden shared a few of his seemingly unlimited exciting experiences of intercultural conflict that rooted in rigid leadership and misunderstanding. Or as Liesbeth Minnaard put it: “intercultural exchange starts by looking at yourself”.

Positive action

Under the flagship of cultural sensitivity and away from universal leadership approaches, one of the salient issues to be discussed after dinner was positive action and whether this is a feasible method to handle underrepresented minorities, especially in times of growing heterogeneity in our working society today. This topic seemed to waken the initially rather passive audience. In now quicker turns, students and guest speakers touched upon the issues of stereotyping, diversity and the need and possible consequences of quota for not only the minorities, but also the majorities.
Despite some controversy, it seemed that audience and guests found consensus in the conclusion that, for example, “a woman could only benefit from a quota, if made transparent and comprehensible to all parties involved”. Because in the end it would raise awareness, which is the first step towards better leadership, as Peter Rodrigues pointed out.

Understanding the other

Eloquently guided by the organizers, other examples of difficulties and possible solutions for effective leadership in intercultural leadership were put forward during the discussion by speakers and students alike. Aernout explained that ineffective leadership between conflicting countries had occurred, because “we didn’t understand their thinking”. And all the others seemed to agree that “awareness” is fundamental to effective leadership in intercultural context. “But how specifically do I lead a diverse working team?” a student asked.

Despite the miscellaneous food for thought that discussion and speaker could provide, some questions seemed to not allow the specific answer that the inquisitive students were hoping for. This may be the burden of a newly arriving non-natural leadership approach, which is a lot less SMART and thus a lot less specific. On the positive side, and all speakers seemed to support this notion, leadership is individualistic and in the end everyone can be a good leader! In this sense: “Know yourself and understand the other”. This awareness will enable you to lead effectively and sensitively, especially in an intercultural challenging context.

(Jakob Filzen, International Leiden Leadership Programme student)

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