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The 6 Cultural Systems that Form the Basis for Cultural Intelligence in Leaders

Executive Summary

Having worked with leaders in over 100 countries across the world, David Livermore, President and Partner of the Cultural Intelligence Center, understands the necessity of being well versed in a culture before trying to do business in it.

  • In order to lead with cultural intelligence, you must understand the six basic cultural systems within the culture and how they apply to everything from your personnel to your target audience.
  • Before expanding your business to a new culture, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Consider hiring local experts who can help advise you on everything from the local government, to how best to train your future employees and marketing dos and don’ts.
  • To be an effective leader within a new culture, you must first become a student of its six systems. Immersing yourself within the culture is the first step to getting your business started on the right foot.

An important part of understanding different cultures is to learn about different cultural systems. Cultural systems are the ways a society has organized itself in terms of meeting basic needs and the structures required for order. Without careful observation, the significance of these systems can easily be missed. There are six cultural systems that are most relevant for those who wish to lead with cultural intelligence: economic, marriage and family, educational, legal and political, religious, and artistic.


Every society has to come up with basic ways of meeting its members’ universal needs of food, water, clothing, and housing. Understanding how a culture has organized itself to produce, allocate, and distribute these basic resources is extremely important to culturally intelligent leadership. Most of us are pretty familiar with the two most predominant economic systems today—capitalism and socialism —though most economic systems are a mix of the two.

  • Capitalism: A society created around the idea of individuals gaining resources and services based on their capacity to pay for them. Decisions are market driven.
  • Socialism: A society in which the state coordinates and implements the production and distribution of basic resources through central planning and control.


Leadership Implications:

  • Consider how best to motivate personnel in light of the predominant economic system. Competition tends to be a better motivational strategy in capitalist societies and cooperation in socialist ones.
  • Understand which industries in a particular place are state run and which are privatized. And be aware that even some privatized companies have heavy state-level investment.
  • When expanding your organization into a country with a different economic system, consider what human resources policies will need to be revised in light of the way health care and retirement is done, how to do performance reviews, and appropriate compensation.



Each society works out a system for who can marry whom, under what conditions, and according to what procedures. A related system of child care becomes standardized in most cultures. The most commonly described family systems are kinship systems and nuclear-family systems.

  • Kinship Family: The family finds its identity in several generations of history and the household often includes three or more generations.
  • Nuclear Family: The family is based on two generations whose members are related by marriage and consists primarily of parents and children.


Leadership Implications:

  • Expect introductions in kinship societies to be embedded with references to siblings, uncles, parents and grandparents, etc. Learning about the career of an individual’s parent may be very important. In contrast, introductions in nuclear-family societies are usually focused on one’s vocational role and what one does for the organization. Conversations about family are considered “personal” and only appropriate after getting to know one another a bit better.
  • When leaders from nuclear-family systems work with colleagues and employees from kinship family systems, keep in mind that allowing room for family obligations will be important when recruiting and retaining talent from kinship societies.
  • When leaders from kinship family systems work with colleagues and employees from nuclear-family systems, beware that they may not see the importance of hearing or sharing about extended-family relationships during an initial introduction.



Societies develop patterns for how their senior members transmit their values, beliefs, and behaviors to their offspring. This is at the core of how societies develop systems for educating and socializing their young.

  • Formal: The use of schools, books, and professionally trained teachers to educate youth.
  • Informal: The emphasis of wisdom passed to youth from extended-family members, parents, and siblings.

Leadership Implications:

  • Develop and adapt training programs for employees with an understanding of the educational systems and preferences of people in different cultures. Some teaching methods may be very foreign or uncomfortable to individuals from certain cultures.
  • Seek to understand the extent to which formal, academic research is valued as compared to conventional wisdom in the ways you motivate, negotiate, and market your work.
  • When seeking to debunk a myth or advance a new idea, understand the primary source of socialization in a culture (e.g., sage wisdom versus academic research).


Most cultures develop systems for maintaining order to ensure citizens will not violate the rights of others in the society. This results in the legal system of a society, which is closely tied with the government of a particular place. In places like the United States, there’s a formal legal system governed by a written constitution and through local, state, and federal laws. Although less formalized and complex, many smaller-scale, technologically simple societies also have effective ways of controlling behaviors.

  • Formal: A very formalized system that is chronicled in things such as a written constitution and laws.
  • Informal: Although less formalized, simple legal systems are still binding and are passed along through conventional wisdom. Citizens and visitors are presumed to understand and follow the rules.

Leadership Implications:

  • Recruit local expertise to aid you in negotiating with legal and government officials.
  • Take the time to learn which laws are relevant for your work in a respective place.
  • Find out what unwritten practices should be used or avoided with legal officials. For example, giving a gift to a government official will be essential in some cultures and can get you arrested in another.



Why do bad things happen to good people? How come drunk drivers survive while innocent people get killed? Why do tsunamis kill some innocent people while others escape? Every culture develops a way of explaining what otherwise seems inexplicable. There are no uniform conventions for answering these questions, but all societies offer a variety of supernatural and religious beliefs for things that go beyond human understanding.

Admittedly, there are many differences within most cultures for how different individuals and their religions answer questions like these. One of the distinguishing differences between how many cultures organize their supernatural belief systems is rooted in the extent to which they take a rational, scientific approach to answering the inexplicable versus a more spiritual and mystical outlook on life. The rational approach puts more emphasis on individual responsibility and work ethic whereas the mystical way places a higher degree of confidence in supernatural powers, both good and evil.

  • Rational: The emphasis is on finding reason-based scientific answers to the supernatural with a focus on individual responsibility and work ethic.
  • Mystical: The emphasis is on supernatural powers, both good and evil, that control day-to-day events and life.


Leadership Implications:

  • Be respectful about how you discuss your religious beliefs and learn what might be most likely to offend someone in light of his or her religious beliefs. Be alert to the most potentially offensive things that could be done in regard to a culture’s religious beliefs and seek to avoid those practices.
  • Become a student of how religious values and supernatural beliefs affect the financial, management, and marketing decisions made by organizations in a particular culture.
  • Find out key religious dates. Avoid opening a new business in China during the Festival of the Dead or on Deepavali in India. And don’t schedule an important meeting on days such as Christmas or Chinese New Year.



Finally, every society develops a system of aesthetic standards that gets manifested in everything from decorative art, music, and dance to the architecture and planning of buildings and communities. There are many different ways we could examine artistic systems. One way of thinking about it is to observe the extent to which a society’s aesthetics reflect clear lines and solid boundaries versus more fluid ones. Many Western cultures favor clean, tight boundaries, whereas many Eastern cultures prefer more fluid, indiscriminate lines.

  • Solid: A preference for clean, tight boundaries that emphasize precision and straight lines.
  • Fluid: A preference for more fluid, indiscriminate lines with an emphasis on ebb and flow and flexibility.

Leadership Implications:

  • Determine whether you need to alter the color schemes, navigation logic, and representations on your website for various regions. What might seem like a clear navigation approach in your culture might be very confusing in another place.
  • Beware of assuming that symbols or logos can be universally applied in all cultural contexts. Do your homework to find out how symbols will be received in the places where you work.
  • Learn what cultural icons are revered. For example, inappropriate use of lions or the Great Wall when marketing to Chinese will erode credibility.



What do you do when you encounter someone who isn’t like you? How do you feel? What goes on inside you? How do you relate to him or her?

As the world becomes more connected and accessible, the number of encounters we have with those who are culturally different are growing daily. Most of us are more comfortable with people like ourselves. But, seeking out and loving people of difference is challenging. Therefore, learning how to reach across the chasm of cultural difference with love and respect is becoming an essential competency for today’s leader.

No one will ever lead across cultures perfectly. But by familiarizing yourself with the systems found within a culture, you can undoubtedly become a more effective leader, giving yourself an overall repertoire and perspective that can be applied to myriad cultural situations.


David Livermore

David Livermore, PH.D., is President and Partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center. He has done training and consulting for leaders in more than 100 countries and is the author of The Cultural Intelligence Difference.


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