Finding CQ in Leaders

CQ: finding culturally intelligent leaders

Laura-Jane Booker Diversity & inclusion, Leadership Leave a Comment

For a brief introduction to Cultural Intelligence (CQ) please read the first article in this series: Leading diverse teams: the importance of cultural intelligence.

Given the growing multi-cultural nature of today’s global business world, it is crucial to develop culturally intelligent leaders. These are leaders who capitalise on the differing opinions, ideas, and tactics that diverse people and teams offer. It is one thing to have a diverse team with differing backgrounds and experiences, but actually using those differences effectively is another thing entirely.

Where do you find high CQ leaders? 

You’ll be delighted to know that CQ is a learned ability. But there are also a few individual characteristics that can predict it. When looking to appoint or develop culturally intelligent leaders, create a talent pool with individuals who possess a few of the following traits.

What traits should you look for?

We’ll start with some obvious ones: gender and age. The good news is gender is not a trait that predicts CQ and has almost a 0 correlation. This keeps your potential talent pool wide.

Age, on the other hand, is positively correlated with CQ. In other words, the older the individual, the more likely they are to have high CQ. The reason is pretty obvious. With age – or should I say experience – you are exposed to more culturally diverse settings and experiences and so have greater opportunity to practice the skills needed to successfully lead a diverse team.

Other less obvious traits include openness, risk orientation, and need for control.


Individuals with high openness are typically curious, imaginative, excitable, artistic, tolerant, and flexible. It is believed that these characteristics can reduce or buffer the negative effects of someone’s interaction with another culture. For example, it is easy to unintentionally disrespect people of other cultures when you don’t understand their norms and practices. However, if these same people see that you are curious to learn, flexible in your behaviour, and tolerant of their norms and practices, you are more likely to be forgiven and accepted.

Risk orientation

Next, look for individuals with high risk orientation. These individuals are more likely to understand why certain risks need to be taken when learning how to interact with other cultures. For example, these individuals are more likely to put themselves in uncomfortable and unnatural situations in order to build better relationships and establish mutual respect.

Need for control

Need for control is another predictive trait of cultural intelligence. Why? Because individuals with a high need for control usually have a desire to master their environment and will do whatever it takes to learn how to function effectively in a foreign setting.

A perfect example of CQ: Jacinda Ardern

For a very recent example of CQ in action, consider how the actions of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern caused widespread effects on a community and the world at large. Ms Ardern’s reaction to the Christchurch tragedy and empathy for the Muslim community garnered international praise. When asked why she reacted the way she did she said it was “intuitive” rather than “deliberate”. This reinforces that although CQ can be taught, there are just some people that are naturally predisposed to cultural intelligence.

Jacinda Ardern's response after the Christchurch terrorist attack shows high CQ.

“Very little of what I have done has been deliberate. It’s intuitive. I think it’s just the nature of an event like this. There is very little time to sit and think in those terms. You just do what feels right.”

Jacinda Ardern

It’s not all about personality

While certain personal traits can be predictive of cultural intelligence there are other antecedents to be aware of. International experience, cultural exposure, and cross-cultural training/education also play a major part in determining one’s cultural intelligence. So when choosing candidates from your talent pool it’s also important to consider these factors.

Your turn!

There are a number of things you can do if you’re not sure about your own level of cultural intelligence.

If you want to get a quick assessment of your CQ, give this quiz a shot.

If you’re working in a cross-cultural team, consider talking to your people about their perception of CQ; do they think business leaders show cultural sensitivity and awareness? Are policies and practices inclusive? Who do people from diverse cultures think are demonstrating CQ successfully?

If you know your workplace needs to up its CQ, consider a professional assessment or training from an organisation in your area. In New Zealand, the Institute of Management NZ offers a full day course.

And if the theory behind CQ is something you’d like to explore further, check out the links below.

Further Reading on CQ

Ang, S., Van Dyne, L., Koh, C., Ng, K. Y., Templer, K. J., Tay, C., & Chandrasekar, N. A. (2007). Cultural intelligence: Its measurement and effects on cultural judgment and decision making, cultural adaptation and task performance. Management and Organization Review3(3), 335-371.

Earley, P. C., & Ang, S. (2003). Cultural intelligence: Individual interactions across cultures. Stanford University Press.

Engle, R. L. & Nehrt, C. C. (2012). Antecedents of cultural intelligence: The role of risk, control, and openness in France and the United States. Journal of Management Policy and Practice, 13(5), 35-47.

Ott, D. L., & Michailova, S. (2018). Cultural intelligence: A review and new research avenues. International Journal of Management Reviews20(1), 99-119.

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