Dare to Lead with Cultural Intelligence

Kristin Ekkens, Director of Corporate Partnerships, CQ Center

I have a quiet addiction to self-improvement and leadership books—especially books focused on inclusion & collaboration, leadership development, behavior change, culture transformation, leading change, design thinking, and positive psychology. Airplanes give me an excuse to learn, dream, ideate, and invent without apology. Some of my favorite books include The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Start with Why by Simon Sinek, The Positive Organization by Robert E Quinn, Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, and Leading with Cultural Intelligence and Driven by Difference by David Livermore.

Most recently, I read Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. While organizing my bathroom cupboards, I found my eyes welling up with tears. In the first chapter, through her personal story about speaking on a large stage, Dr. Brown described with such exactness my own experience.

What captivated me most was Dr. Brown’s authenticity, her real-life stories that make the research on shame and vulnerability real, her unforgettable sayings such as “clear is kind,” and actionable strategies such as “paint done.” I could not help but connect the findings and implications to cultural intelligence. I’d like to explore further how empathy relates to cultural intelligence.


Dr. Brown defines empathy as connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience. CQ Strategy is making sense of a culturally diverse experience. Both require perspective taking and being nonjudgmental. With CQ Strategy, we need to slow down long enough to check our own emotions, be aware of our assumptions, and reflect on our experiences. Empathy builds trust and increases connection, which are critical for relating and working across cultures—but not always easy to do.

How do we lead with empathy in a culturally diverse situation?
Let’s say a leader needs to provide feedback to a team member because a customer called and complained about what they perceived as unprofessional behavior. A culturally intelligent leader stays curious and continues to probe the issue with, “say more.” She tries to determine what the client meant by unprofessional. For instance, was the employee speaking too directly? Was the team member being too informal (i.e., not using titles)? Was she being too expressive with emotions or body language? Was it truly unprofessional behavior or just a matter of cultural difference?

CQ leaders lean into their own vulnerability, actively listen, are honest and courageous, check their assumptions, and stay curious to learn both sides of the situation. Next, the leader may meet with the team member using the same strategy, “say more,” to find out about her experience. During this exploration phase, a CQ leader suspends judgment and perhaps even enlists a cultural coach to help see and understand both perspectives.

Once the leader analyzes the experience both from the client and team member perspectives, she can do what Dr. Brown calls a rumble. The world rumble is cue to say, “Let’s have a real conversation, even if it’s tough.” Rumbling across culture takes skill because the very idea of speaking so frankly about this kind of uncomfortable situation may be in direct conflict with cultural norms. It takes motivation, knowledge, awareness, and often adapting your preferred behavior to one that is more relatable to the team member.

Perhaps the client felt the team member was inappropriately dressed—her earrings were too big, her clothes too bright—and the client determined your team member looked unprofessional (or didn’t “fit in” when visiting the client’s office). From the employee’s perspective, perhaps her brightly colored attire and large hoop earrings are artifacts and symbols of pride in representing her cultural background and identity. A CQ leader’s goal is not to place blame or shame (on either the customer or the team member), but to rumble with both sides to seek to understand, learn, and determine a culturally intelligent solution. In this scenario, that might mean helping the client expand their cultural understanding. It may mean showing empathy and relating to the employee. The leader might say something like “Although I may not fully understand how the client’s comments impact you, I want you to know I see you. Who you are is important to me and to our company. I would never ask you to change who you are just to please or keep the client.”

Recommended Actions:
1.  Write down how you would give constructive feedback in a direct manner to an employee. Then write down how you would give constructive feedback in an indirect manner to a different employee (e.g., how would you communicate that continuing to miss deadlines is unacceptable?). Next, write down how you would provide constructive feedback directly and indirectly to someone who is more senior. Discuss your examples with a colleague.

2.  After facilitating an important conversation (i.e., when giving feedback), ask team members to write down their understanding of decisions and next steps. Check to see if people have similar or different perspectives. Think about what you can learn about your team and reflect on the importance of checking people’s perspectives.


True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.
— Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

With higher CQ, you have a map and reference point to help interpret what’s occurring. As a result, your ability to adjust internally and externally to the shifting expectations and demands of diverse cultures is enhanced through increased CQ.
— David Livermore, Leading with Cultural Intelligence


• Brown (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
• Livermore (2015). Leading with Cultural Intelligence.

CQ is an ongoing education

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