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How Does Cultural Curiosity Make An Effective Global Leader?

When it comes to culture, a curious global leader is better at navigating cultural lines, building bridges, communicating their vision across cultures, and adapting and thriving in diverse environments.

Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling, Tai

Lisbon, Portugal

How Does Cultural Curiosity Make An Effective Global Leader?

Curiosity is a superpower for the geniuses, innovators and leaders of the world. Curious people have a strong desire to seek out new information and experiences.

Curiosity is about discovery. It’s about making the unknown known. It’s about asking why and why not. It’s about stepping away from comfort into the uncomfortable. It’s wondering, what’s on the other side? What’s the view? It’s about searching for paths when there is none. It’s about standing at different vantage points, taking in multiple views. A curious leader will not accept things as the status quo. They will continuously find diverse ideas, perspectives, and ways to develop their team and bring them forward.

When it comes to culture, a curious global leader is better at navigating cultural lines, building bridges, communicating their vision across cultures, and adapting and thriving in diverse environments. These are the very qualities that make a global leader effective in connecting, collaborating and developing high-performing multicultural teams.

What is Cultural Curiosity?

Curiosity comes from within. It is inner motivation and drives to explore, investigate, understand and learn. The goal is to acquire knowledge, skills as well as experiences. Humanity’s curiosity is seen as the driving force for developments in science, advancement in technology, exponential improvement in the quality of life, exploration of space and much more.

We might continue to believe that the world is flat or that the sun revolves around us without curiosity. We would not have travelled to the moon or discovered electricity. Neither would we have left their homelands to travel the world or tinkered with chemicals, which improved healthcare globally.

Cultural curiosity refers specifically to the wonder, discovery and understanding of people from different cultural backgrounds in how they feel, think, communicate, behave and interact. Cultural curiosity involves a deep motivation to learn and empathise with different ways of working and living, including the culture’s values, beliefs, norms, and customs.

Based on a survey by over 4,000 executives and managers in companies worldwide by MIT Sloan1, curiosity, along with trust and integrity, is considered an enduring leadership behaviour. For a global leader, Cultural Curiosity helps heighten their sense of awareness, sensitivity, knowledge and empathy of another culture. These are all important traits in establishing trusting relationships.

How does Cultural Curiosity make a significant global leader?

Cultural curiosity is fundamental in ensuring that a global leader performs and thrives in culturally-diverse environments and groups of people. There are many ways in how Cultural Curiosity supports a global leader. Among the many benefits, Cultural Curiosity cultivates collaboration, drives innovation, and maintains and improves one’s well-being.

Positive social outcomes

When we approach others with curiosity, we present ourselves as open, non-judgement, humility and earnest. As such, others will view you as more competent and with a higher level of trust. Others will be more willing to connect, share and build relationships. Over time, if such connections are maintained, you’ll be able to share and learn from each other’s culture. This can only lead to meaningful and strengthened cross-cultural relationships that will enrich your life and work.

Driver of Innovations

When Cultural Curiosity is triggered, people see problems and barriers as a new area to explore, investigate and learn. Leaders with Cultural Curiosity are eager to find creative solutions and become excited when a discovery opens up many possibilities. For a global leader, such curiosity will help to probe, gather and synergise the culturally-diverse perspectives of their team and achieve more inclusive and innovative results. In a volatile and uncertain world, curiosity propels us to think deeply, rationally and meaningfully of our decisions so that creative solutions can come to life.

Subjective well-being

When we don’t know the local language or navigate the cultural landmines, we may feel anxious, lost, distressed. Such situations puts a toll on your mental and emotional well-being. Although research has shown that if a global leader is culturally curious, these very anxious-inducing experiences are reframed as an experience that gives them excitement, enthusiasm and energy. They will be better able to navigate uncertain and ambiguous circumstances while they consciously maintain their well-being. Having Cultural Curiosity can help sustain the well-being of the global leader in the long run.

How can I become more Culturally Curious?

You can consider several areas in developing Cultural Curiosity. First,  build your Cultural Curiosity by understanding our motivation, acquiring cultural knowledge, observing social interactions and enquiring about individual responses.

Acquiring Cultural Knowledge can be done through research. Typically, Cultural Knowledge consists of learning about a cultural group's history, geography, demographics, politics, and philosophies. It can also encompass long-held traditions, values, beliefs, norms, communication styles. Most training programs and textbooks focus on the dos and don’ts when interacting with a member of a different culture. The Cultural Knowledge obtained by being curious can be used as the foundation for deepening one’s understanding of another culture. However, knowledge alone is not enough. Knowledge needs to be verified with personal observation and enquiry.

Next, we can further develop Cultural Curiosity by observing social interactions. With an open mind and putting aside assumptions, we take the time to watch how individuals within a cultural group interact with each other. As you observe, you might consider these aspects of social interaction and make personal notes.

Interaction between the elderly and the young

How do they speak to each other? Is there deference? Is there equality? The observation of this social interaction will reveal the culture’s value in relating to its members of varying ages. For example, cultures with deep roots in Confucianism value respect and deference to the elderly, while cultures in Greek philosophy value equality, no matter the age.

Interaction between an employee and its leaders

How do members of a group view their leaders? Are their leaders viewed as equals? Or is there a social distance between them? Such observations will provide a hint in the power distance structure of the cultural group. Whether it is high or low power distance, this cultural value shapes the way decisions are made and how tasks are delegated and executed.

Interaction between people of similar age and status

Are they expressive in their conversations? Or are they reserved? Do they give hugs or peck on the cheeks? Or do they not touch at all? Such interactions will help guide your mannerism and behaviour in informal settings with friends or colleagues outside the workplace. These observations will indicate whether the cultural group is expressive. Expressive cultures are generous in their hand gestures or facial expressions. Yet, cultures that are more reserved in their communication, have steady vocal tones and are more muted in their non-verbal language.

Interaction within and outside the office environment

Are the people relaxed in the office? Or dressed and behaved formally? Are they on time for business meetings and not for meeting friends and family? Do they bring their work home? Or their life to work? This observation can give you a sense of whether the cultural group values work productivity over work-life balance. Cultural groups who value productivity tend to bring their work home or may seem to work all the time. In comparison, cultural groups that value work-life balance will have clear boundaries when they dedicate their time to work and personal life.

Engage a Cultural Broker

Lastly, with the knowledge and notes from observations, it is best to enquire about individual responses. Seek out and engage a cultural broker who understands your culture and the culture you are observing. Discuss with them your observations and seek feedback from them on the interpretations of that behaviour.

For example, you have noticed that a local leader prefers to instruct their direct reports rather than discuss the next steps. In your cultural view, it might be seen as ego-centric and inconsiderate of the employee's opinions. However, after consulting with your cultural interpreter, you discovered that if the leaders do not instruct, the direct reports will view the leader as incompetent and undeserving of the position.

Ready to be Culturally Curious?

If you want to become a global leader, start with Cultural Curiosity, the best place to start your journey. If you’ve been a global leader for some time, perhaps it’s time to consider and develop your sense of Cultural Curiosity. In time, your multicultural team will be better able to connect, collaborate and become unstoppable in achieving global business success.


  1. Ready, D. A. (2019, July 18). In Praise of the Incurably Curious Leader. MIT Sloan Management Review, Big Idea: Future of Leadership In the Digital Economy.