Intercultural Leadership: How can we have a more human approach to sustainability practices?

28 February 2024 by Sandra Martin
blog author

​I have been inspired, following a recent training course, to connect the dots between intercultural leadership and sustainability.

The intercultural leadership training course, which I attended with my colleague Marijn Götzenberger at ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam, was facilitated by Diversity Network ABN AMRO (DNA) members Allan Kartodikromo and Alicia Utami.

As someone with a degree in anthropology and psychology, I found the training intriguing and felt compelled to share my findings. The training stems from traditional academic settings, prioritizing practical ways to meet diverse needs. This highlighted the connection between intercultural leadership, cultural communication, and how the two relate to sustainability.

Intercultural understanding is not just vital for global relations but acts as a key component in constructing a sustainable, resilient and harmonious future. Diversity, inclusion, and sustainability goals have taken centre stage in recent years, and incorporating intercultural leadership into the foundations and structures of companies is paramount. Just like sustainability, which has proven effective when applied systematically across the entire organizational board, intercultural leadership should not be a token gesture but embedded deeply in the fabric of company culture.

As organizations navigate the complexities of a multicultural workforce, intercultural leaders play a crucial role in building deep relationships and ensuring equal respect for all cultures.

During the training course, however, anecdotal experiences and grievances were shared, highlighting the problems which can arise from false assumptions or information.

So, here are my key takeaways.

What is intercultural leadership?

Intercultural leadership can be defined as the way a leader engages the workforce, regardless of their culture. While conventional leaders influence through various communication methods, intercultural leaders immerse themselves in the cultural tapestry of the workplace. This involves deep self-awareness of cultural biases, actively embracing diversity, and ensuring its integration into the core of the organization.

Why is intercultural leadership important within sustainability?

  • Global Collaboration: Intercultural leadership accelerates collaboration across diverse cultural backgrounds, to develop and implement global sustainable solutions. This aligns with sustainability scholars like Paul Hawken, emphasizing the power of diverse networks for addressing global challenges.

  • Inclusivity and Diversity in Sustainability: Intercultural leaders excel at creating inclusive environments, valuing diverse perspectives in sustainability. This aligns with anthropologist Julian Agyeman’s concept of "just sustainabilities," advocating for fairness and justice in environmental policies.

  • Cultural Sensitivity in Sustainable Development: Recognizing the significance of cultural sensitivity, especially in sustainable development, aligns with anthropologist Tim Ingold's perspectives. He writes that sustainability initiatives consider cultural nuances, ensuring that interventions foster a sense of ownership and collaboration.

The example of Rakuten's global language policy reinforces the interconnected nature of linguistic choices, organizational dynamics, and collaboration, as explored by linguistic anthropologist Edward Sapir.

The call for community dialogue aligns with approaches advocated by anthropologists like Orlando Fals-Borda, whose work emphasizes collaborative knowledge and community engagement.

Embedding these academic connections aligns practical experiences with anthropological and sustainability debate while emphasizing the systemic integration of intercultural leadership within corporate structures.

I hope this subject resonates with you and sparks some interesting insights. I would be interested to hear your views and experiences on intercultural leadership and sustainability, especially if you are able to share examples of other successful intercultural sustainability practices.​