7.4 Case Study 4: A New Leadership Culture

It’s been 6 months since Kolab was hired to lead a large, nonprofit organization called, International Education Center (IEC), which provides international education and information to the citizens of a Midwestern state. The organization provides opportunities for individuals to learn about different cultures and to gain an understanding about their role as citizens of the world. It does this by connecting the people of the state with visitors from all over the world in order to meet and learn from one another.

Prior to the job at the IEC, Kolab directed national programming and services for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in Washington, D.C. Before her job at the ORR, she worked for an international relief agency and traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia and Africa, working in the organization’s field offices, managing its daily operations.

Kolab, born in Cambodia, fled with her parents to the United States as refugees during the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (the followers of the Communist Party who ruled Cambodia from the 1975-1979). Her experiences growing up as a refugee fuel her motivation and passion for international work. It also shaped her expectations and working style. She is known to her colleagues as a “go-getter” and a “high performer.”

The board of trustees thought Kolab’s international experiences and goal-oriented, achievement-focused attitude was just what they needed to expand the organization on a national level. The previous president, Hanh, did not have the strategic thinking and vision to move IEC, even though she was very effective at building relationships throughout the state. After 10 years with IEC, Hanh decided to step down from her leadership role. This gave the board of directors an opportunity to hire someone like Kolab who can challenge employees and push the organization to reach its financial and fundraising goals.

Since Kolab’s hire, employee productivity and motivation has decreased. Staff used to enjoy coming to work, talking with one another, and planning programs and services for the community. Now they come to work because “we need a paycheck,” and they accomplish their tasks because “Kolab told me to do so.” There is no enthusiasm for the mission of the organization and the vision for the new work that Kolab and the directors created in a strategic planning meeting. A couple of times, when Kolab passed employee cubicles, she heard comments like, “She works us all like we don’t have a personal life,” “She’s so impersonable,” “I miss just chatting with people,” and “Hanh was never like this. She always made time to talk to us.”

Just last week, Kolab had a staff meeting, and the majority of staff sauntered in late. Throughout the meeting, they gave her blank stares, and, as soon as the meeting was over, they quickly left. Kolab is tired of the staff attitudes and behaviors. “The culture of this organization can’t operate the way it used to. I am determined to change it,” she thinks to herself.

  1. How does Kolab’s self-concept influence her ability to lead?
  2. What cultural value dimensions does the organization operate under? What about Kolab?
  3. What cultural intelligence strategies do you recommend for Kolab and her employees?


There are several issues here that Kolab needs to work through. First, Kolab has a specific leadership style that she likes to use. Her style is task- and goal-oriented, and is influenced by her upbringing. Her beliefs and her attitude is exactly what the board wants, but it is drastically different than the leadership style and organizational culture that is familiar to the employees. Second, Kolab wants the culture of the organization to move toward accountability, goals, and achievement; this is not to say that the organization was not goal-oriented before. Kolab’s vision for the organization’s goals, and how to get there, is a departure from what the cultural norm dictated in the past. Third, the staff has a self-concept that was developed as a result of Hanh’s leadership influence. They are feeling a dissonance between their self-concept and the new one that Kolab wants to enforce. Kolab would need to address all these areas and find strategies that help to keep her staff motivated during this time of change.

CI Model in Action

  • Acquire: There are multiple levels of culture at work in this case study, particularly how individual cultural differences are expressed and interpreted. Kolab has an approach to work that differs from her employees; most of the approach is based on her personal experiences and history as a refugee. As a leader practicing cultural intelligence, Kolab will need to take a look at her self-concept and how it differs or corresponds with her staff. She can do this in two ways: first, by exploring her own personal history and second, by getting to know her staff as individuals. The knowledge she gains about herself and others will bridge her understanding of individual cultural differences and how they are expressed in an organization.
  • Build: Kolab was hired because she is a “go-getter,” which typically means that she is achievement focused and oriented. Her staff interprets this as “impersonable.” To build an understanding of cultural differences, Kolab can build into her personal development plan ways to observe and listen to her staff. As an observer, she can pick up on verbal and nonverbal cues in her environment, thus helping her pay attention to her surroundings. By actively listening to her staff, she will learn how to adapt her behavior appropriately for the situation she is in.
  • Contemplate: Kolab has a high ability to be resilient, which she developed as part of her personality and individual culture because of her experience as a refugee. This will be helpful to her in staying positive about the situation. However, one of the things she could improve on is her ability to gauge the emotions of her staff during their interactions. She is not accurately perceiving the thoughts and emotions, thus she is unable to handle the relationships in a way that is appropriate.
  • Do: Kolab is trying to change the culture of the organization. As a leader, she needs to recognize that cultural shifts can be difficult, and it is her responsibility as a leader to help her employees make the changes successfully. She can help change cultural behavior through the use of stories. She can strategize this in different ways. She can set time for people to share the stories of the “old culture” and what they would like to see in the new culture. She can, using the power of words and language, share stories of herself, her vision, and where she would like the organization to be. She can combine her stories with the stories of her employees to create a unified story.