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Intercultural Theory and Servant Leadership

Updated: May 22, 2023

In every culture a limited number of general, universally shared human problems need to be solved. One culture can be distinguished from another by the specific solution it chooses for those problems.

The Book

I was introduced to Fons Trompenaars’ book Riding the Waves of Culture when purely by happenstance I found myself amongst a group of intercultural consultants attending a conference in Florence, Italy. I was working with an engineering team in France at the time and, despite having a lot of experience with cultures other than my own, was struggling with the social aspects of my job. My new friends lent me an empathetic ear and recommended this book to me. I have in turn introduced it to many others with the caveat that this is not light reading — it’s academic and dense. On the other hand, it has a plethora of graphs and charts! If you’re interested in culture and human behavior generally and enjoy the visualization of information you’ll love this.

The Cultural Onion

Trompenaars describes a layered model of culture. Observable customs and practices are at the outermost layer. Values and norms lie beneath, often implicit but still accessible. Basic assumptions are deep at the core. So deep that they are virtually invisible and nearly immutable. Accepting that people look and act differently to yourself should be easy in our globally connected age. The real challenge comes when your essential beliefs clash with those with whom you share a common goal.

Seeking the Spiral

Cultures are caught between opposing poles of modes of action and orientation of belief. Perhaps the most easily understood example is the dichotomy of individualism versus communitarianism. Trompenaars’s technique is to position these as x and y axes. He does not prescribe managing this universal dilemma by seeking the mushy middle. Instead, we may navigate between these axes in a kind of “dance”. Illustrated across time, this creates a spiral pattern, upward and to the right. These are the “waves of culture” referred to in the title. On the path to the desired outcome, one belief is integrated into the other without dilution of either. It is a method of compromise that avoids turning compromise itself into the goal.

The Video

Fons Trompenaars on Culture, Business, and Servant Leadership


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