What makes Culturally Intelligent leaders?

Up until recently, the belief was that common sense and emotional intelligence (EQ) were enough to support leaders when dealing with diversity. However, research has shown that common sense is often not common and that even EQ is not enough. 

The evidence is that EQ is useful when working in a familiar context, but in the diverse world of today, leaders are required to adapt and flex their leadership approach according to the context.

In 2003 researchers from various academic institutions, including the University of Michigan, became curious about what differentiates leaders who can adapt to different cultural context from those that can’t? This line of inquiry has led to the development of an increasing body of evidence which reveals that leadership adaptability is linked directly to Cultural Intelligence (CQ).

What is Cultural Intelligence?

CQ has been defined as: The capability to function effectively in intercultural contexts, including different national, ethnic, organizational, generational and other contexts.

Subsequent research has revealed that CQ may be a one of the most critical leadership competencies in the 21st Century. A GLOBE Leadership survey conducted in 2015 revealed that:

90% of leading executives from 68 countries identified cross-cultural leadership as the top management challenge for the next century.

Why does it matter?

The most pressing issues executives identified for why cultural intelligence is needed are:

  • Diverse markets,
  • Multi-cultural workforce
  • Attract and retain top talent
  • Profitability and cost savings

Research has seen over 40,000 individuals across every major region in the world, surveyed. The results reveal that there are four distinct capabilities consistently found amongst culturally intelligent leaders. By developing these four key areas, leaders are enabled to broaden their understanding of culture beyond ethnicity to understand and respond effectively to contextual shifts, whatever their origin (ethnic, gender, functional, organisational or generational).

These four dimensions include: 

Drive, Knowledge, Strategy and Action. 

Culturally intelligent leaders are motivated (CQ Drive), informed (CQ Knowledge) and able to adapt their plans (CQ Strategy) and modify their behaviours (CQ Action) when working across different cultural contexts.

Action Points

To learn more, take a look at the following video clip:

Where we work:

Diversitas is based in two of the most super-diverse cities in the world – Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Auckland, New Zealand. Although these two cities are continents apart, in both of them, homogeneity has given way to diversity as ‘business as usual’.

In Dubai, approximately, 200,000 people from over 200 nationalities coexist peacefully, whilst virtually every group represented has its origin in another country. Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, on the other side of the world in Auckland, New Zealand, 39% of the population was born overseas, making it more diverse than London, Sydney and New York.

In these cities, every day, almost every leader engages in a myriad of intercultural interactions either face to face, via e-mail or through interactions with their own teams and clients. The level of diversity experienced in these regions has added considerable complexity to the leadership challenge. Our experience in working with these leaders is that most of them feel relatively unprepared for their task. 


The good news is that CQ is a practical intelligence that can be learned and developed. Furthermore, thanks to the groundbreaking work that has been done in the field since 2003, CQ can now be assessed using a simple on-line psychometric.

What would it mean for you and your team if you could not only meet your diversity challenges but transform them into a competitive advantage by developing your own cultural intelligence?

For us at Diversitas, the case cannot be stronger for paying attention to CQ as a key leadership skill. Arguably, it could outstrip IQ and EQ to become the most important leadership competency of the 21st Century.

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