6 reasons why modern leaders need Cultural Intelligence

Julia Middleton is Founder and Chief Executive of Common Purpose, and lead educator on the free online course, “Developing Cultural Intelligence for Leadership.” Here, she explains why leaders require Cultural Intelligence – the ability to cross divides and thrive in multiple cultures – like never before.

Julia Middleton of Common Purpose

I believe that Cultural Intelligence (CQ) has found its moment. We have never needed it more than we do right now. This is not about theories of leadership, but the realities of leadership in the world as it is today. Shifts are taking place globally that call for – indeed demand – leaders with CQ. These changes are also happening locally, in cities and communities all around the globe.

Here are six changes, which show that the time for CQ has come:

1. The need for collaboration

Big problems can no longer – if they ever could – be solved by one person, one sector, one culture, one community, one country or even one continent operating alone. So leading across boundaries through collaboration is increasingly crucial.

Without CQ, leaders will lead underperforming collaborations, where two and two struggle even to add up to one, or the collaborations will simply never get off the ground, as people go their own way. Silos will go unbusted, sectors will continue to clash, resources will be wasted, divides will deepen and the big problems will simply stay unsolved.

2. The reality of networks

The world is becoming more connected. At the same time, institutions are being questioned, organisations are becoming flatter and social networks are burgeoning as never before. Leaders know it is happening, and they know they must build networks in order to cope with it all – and capitalise on the opportunities presented.

I believe that the temptation simply to increase one’s homogeneous network needs to be resisted. In order to address complex problems and bring people together to solve them, leaders have to go further afield, and further away from what (and who) they know. They will need to build turbulent networks that will challenge and discomfit them. This will take more than a good Internet connection. It will require CQ.

3. The importance of trust

In this new, less structured world, trust will become the greatest of assets. People buy brands they trust, listen to sources they trust and choose to follow leaders they trust. Without that trust, they will not give their best. Or worse, they will eventually simply move on to someone they do trust.

It is up to leaders to make themselves worthy of trust: to make good decisions, to behave consistently and appropriately, and to build up a record of doing so over time. It’s one thing doing this in your own culture or sector, where the reference points for trust will be familiar on all sides. It’s much harder to establish your own trustworthiness with people whose frame of reference for trust is very different. There is much more to this than gestures or local customs. You need to develop real CQ.

4. The demands of demographics

Relationships between old and young are becoming increasingly strained, right across the world. In some cases, it is through a decline in young people, who are then feeling the burden of looking after their elders. In other cases, it is because of an abundance of young, who want things to be different and are not prepared to wait.

Perhaps it is a natural precondition of progress that young and old must clash. But I believe it is also a precondition of progress that they must connect. CQ is needed to cross generational divides for both young and old alike.

5. The urban magnet

People are moving to cities around the world as never before. These cities are not just growing in size; they are (or are fast becoming) magnets of talent, coming together from multiple backgrounds and different cultures.

To be a leader in any of these cities, people will need to have serious CQ. They will need to be able to set diverse groups alight, and not set out to homogenise them, instructing them to leave their differences at the door. They will need to create a culture that both allows people to belong while being different, and to be many different things all at the same time.

6. The pressure to focus

I have always thought that the leadership journey looks very much like an hourglass. As your career progresses, you become more and more knowledgeable in a smaller and smaller field. And then, suddenly, you get that next promotion when you need a broader view again and nothing has prepared you for it.

When dangers and pitfalls – and opportunities – surround you, it is the job of a leader to spot them and, ideally, anticipate them, because they can come from unexpected places and in unexpected ways. That demands a wider lens – at the very point when everything and everyone else is pressing you to focus. But to take in what you see through a wider lens you will need CQ.

So effective modern leaders need to develop CQ and develop it soon.  This is why I wrote the book on CQ, and why we are launching a free online course on CQ in August. And it’s why so many great leaders have contributed to both.

What do you think? Why else is CQ now more important for leaders than ever before? Tell us in the comments below. Or join Developing Cultural Intelligence for Leadership” to enhance your own CQ.

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Comments (26)


  • Manuel Reyes De la Paz

    Oh yes!! CQ is necessary more than ever before cause
    the global resolution to problems requieres more colaboration from all sources of cultures or human groups and when that happens (colaboration),it will be the time to start to apreciate and respect preciscely other people culture,language,religion,gender and sexual orientation,political preference or even enequality in terms of level of inclusion will be respecte and appreciated with the willinness of colaboration using Cultural Intelligence (CQ).

  • The one and Only One

    I lead several teams in my working career and I am glad to say that I am a foreigner too. I have used the CQ Philosophy well before it was talked about. You just react naturally to the surroundings you are leading in. You know you are different and there are others too that are different from you. Hence, the reasoning is to apply that Cultural Intelligence in order to keep the team well balanced. I think it is all about assessing the situations and then apply the CQ at that moment. I think, it is only fair to take everybody as they come and they all MUST be equal.

  • Masezerano Wycliffe

    CQ is more interesting for leaders of today’s world because we need people who understand that people around the world are different. CQ will help modern leaders to solve problems through collaborations, networking, various people. CQ can be also important for leadership graduates.

  • Akshay Mishra

    It ensures inclusion of crucially important component of cultural heterogeneity ,while providing optimum space to multidimensionally ranging issues & concerns being addressed rather visualized in holistically inclusive manner. It gives hominising sentiment to social processes’ undertaking & through culture mediated -social derivatives , it enables smoother adaptability for plans & proposed ideas.

  • Akshay Mishra

    In current era where boundaries are most porous or non existing than ever due to Internet driven connectivity & rapidly expanding ways & pace of networking ! CQ has the crucial most skill which is going to emerge as significant edge! The Business groups & corporate entities – able to harness social capital through optimising cultural narratives & anecdotes , are only going to sustain and retain profitability.
    From culture sensitivity to acculturation now it’s era of cultural calidoscope , where influential or relevant cultures are to be taken as priorty agenda in terms of developing suitable strategy to bank upon emerging opportunities in second & third world – countries : beyond the era & regime of singular cultural dominance of west.

  • Genet

    I think CQ is more important than befor, because technologie evolution the world communicate more, bouderie become lesse and lesse; economical exchange , political chang e… That is is why the leader need a good capacité of CQ to adapte him self to this all evolution.