Cultural Intelligence: The Must-Have Skill For Any Modern Leader

Aug 03, 2018 3 Min Read
multicultural team improves cultural intelligence

FORMER United States (US) president, John F Kennedy (JFK) was said to be a brilliant leader. According to estimates, he had an intelligence quotient (IQ) of 158 – he was quite literally, brilliant.
Thirty years later, Bill Clinton – also in possession of a high IQ – was renowned for his ability to project sincere and engaging charm, thanks to a high emotional quotient (EQ).

But what about the third ‘Q’ factor?

The truth about cultural intelligence

There was a time when having a high IQ was a key component of leadership. The ‘ability to analyse facts and information quickly and intelligently’ was later complemented by the need for EQ.

EQ enables leaders to understand the people who followed them and engage with them in a credible and authentic fashion.

Then came the skill set that may define today’s successful leaders, and it even has a stylish little acronym all of its own. In the here and now, this is the intelligence asset that is just as important as IQ and EQ.

Related: The Characteristics of True Leadership

Cultural intelligence, or cultural quotient (CQ), offers the advantage that leaders need in a world where people increasingly work across borders, both in the physical and cultural sense. It is a must-have for modern leaders, and here’s why.

It is the ability not just to understand others, but to understand others who do not meet your cultural norms and then act on that knowledge in a mutually beneficial way.

Cultural intelligence has attracted worldwide research and study since its introduction by two researchers, Christopher Earley and Soon Ang in their 2003 book, Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures. It became more widely recognised after a review in the October 2004 issue of the Harvard Business Review.


Fifty years ago, the words ‘cultural intelligence’ were as mystifying as the idea of television would have been to William Shakespeare.

In simple terms, cultural intelligence is the capability to relate and work effectively across cultures.

It’s a skill that is key in enabling leaders to do more than just avoid conflict and misunderstanding, it empowers them to run successful teams despite cultural differences.

If all this sounds familiar, then the chances are you have encountered someone in possession of this valuable intelligence asset. But do you have it?

Read More: Inclusion and Diversity Starts with Leaders

Do you have cultural intelligence?

To assess yourself for cultural intelligence, try asking yourself the following questions:

1. Do you care about operating in culturally diverse settings?

This is the simplest test of all and leads to a follow-on question: do you feel confident in these settings? This reveals your level of interest in and confidence at functioning effectively in culturally diverse settings. Without eagerness to take on the challenges of multicultural work, your chance of cultural faux-pas is high.

Dive Deeper: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion - The Power Call

2. Are you aware of how cultures are similar and different?

You don’t need to be an expert on every culture. You just need to understand intercultural norms and differences and their effects on everyday business.
If you know that you have a meeting with a client from the Middle East, have you done your homework on the different expectations that may exist or the importance of trusted relationships in business? Interest and knowledge are the foundations on which leaders must build a behavioural strategy.

3. Can you deliver?

Your strategy might be sound, but can you put it into practice in a ‘live’ environment: like a high-pressure meeting or a seemingly-relaxed but highly-scrutinised business social? This test is all about your ability to smoothly adapt your behaviour to different cultures. It requires you to have a flexible repertoire of responses for various situations while still remaining true to yourself.

Leading with CQ

CQ-enabled leaders may not grab the headlines as much as those without it, but 90 percent of business leaders from almost 70 countries named culturally intelligent leadership as the leading priority for the rest of the century.

Leaders with high cultural intelligence are consistently more effective personally and professionally. This is probably because they possess a fundamental awareness that helps them tell whether a person’s behaviour can be explained by a cultural value, or simply by a personal idiosyncrasy.

Imagine how useful this skill would be in your next meeting in the Middle East – whether you are leading cross-border business negotiations, discussing and understanding new markets, finding a way to make your business processes work locally, or finding a culturally appropriate way to advertise your product without alienating or possibly offending the entire local market – you’re sure to be way ahead of your game.

Matthew Maclachlan, head of intercultural and communication skills training at Learnlight, has more than 20 years of experience in helping organisations develop their global talent. What are your thoughts on cultural intelligence? Let us know at

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Tags: Culture

Matthew Maclachlan uses cultural intelligence to address the cultural, diversity and inclusion challenges faced by organizations around the world. By building solutions on how adults really learn, we can influence real cultural change.

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