David Livermore: Leading with Cultural Intelligence

Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to SuccessLeading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success by David Livermore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I used to tell students that whether they “liked” a book or were “interested” in a topic was utterly beside the point. The point of an education is to learn how to invest yourself, to find your way in, to practice the imaginative leaps that would be necessary to take interest and even to come to like or love something that you were unable to like at the beginning. Generally speaking, I think education is training in how to be a soul more open to possibilities, to increase both the range and depth of your pleasures and thereby to increase your motivation to understanding of things that were previously indifferent or mysterious.

Well, I’ll be up front and say Livermore’s book, Leading With Cultural Intelligence, isn’t pitched to the meaty part of my imaginative or intellectual strike zone. I have enjoyed books on leadership in higher education where I pick up tips here and there on how to do a better job. I do find, however, that books on leadership are often long on examples that state the obvious, too repetitive of the insights others have already well-established, short on deeper reflection on human meaning and purpose, and almost totally absent of graceful writing. Too many feel like the insights of a good Harvard Business Review essay stretched over and extra hundred and fifty pages to make the best seller list.

That having been said, I came to Livermore’s book with a little trepidation, but also determined to demand of myself what I demanded of my students–to make a leap of the imagination that would help me find my way in to it. It came recommended from Todd Allen, a trusted colleague who leads our institutional efforts in inclusive excellence, and I have some long personal and intellectual investment in understanding how to make some difference in the world relative to issues of cultural and racial division and animosity. Finally, I firmly believe that if institutions of higher education are going to fully grapple with the questions of inclusive excellence, leadership has to come from the middle from people like department chairs who help make and implement decision about curriculum, hiring, faculty development and other academic programming. So I am considering the book as a source text for a chair retreat next fall.

By and large this motivation paid dividends. Cultural Intelligence has the faults I list above. It won’t be remembered for its contributions to American prose, and the second half of the book starts sounding repetitive even though Livermore is supposedly introducing new concepts. Nevertheless, I ended up glad I read the book. I ended with some new insights into my own way of being in the world and it helped me think about how that way of being might be contributing positively or negatively to efforts in inclusive excellence in my own domain.

The notion of cultural intelligence has been around for a little while, and is somewhat akin to the notions like emotional intelligence. Livermore makes this analogy explicit, in fact. Roughly speaking the book is about the dimension of cultural intelligence, the skills you need to effectively exercise cultural intelligence, and the means by which you can enhance your cultural intelligence. Livermore breaks cultural intelligence down in to four domains: knowledge, motivation, strategy, and action. What kinds of knowledge do you need to be culturally intelligent? What kind of motivation do you have to practice cultural intelligence? What strategies do you use to engage in situations of cultural difference? What kinds of actions do you pursue to reach specific ends in ways that respect the cultures with which you are engaging?

None of this is rocket science exactly, but because Livermore is making most of his references to leading in multinational corporations, I was constantly having to think by analogy to how things might apply to the world of higher education. Among other things, as a Dean of the Humanities, it struck me that we probably think of cultural intelligence almost entirely in the realm of knowledge–what do you know about other cultures and inter cultural situations being the driving question. This is unsurprising given the cognitive bias of most of us who choose to go in to higher ed. But in Livermore’s conception this is only one small part of what it would mean to function in a culturally intelligent way. It’s not enough to know about other cultures, it’s also important to know how your own culture leads you to privilege certain things and value certain kinds of behavior. Moreover, knowledge alone may not lead to strategy and action. Livermore makes the case that introverts tend to be very strong on cultural knowledge and strategizing, but weaker on action and motivation. This rang true, though of course it isn’t universally true. But intellectuals like to reflect, like to strategize, and sometimes we don’t really like to act. Thinking is what we do best, and a strategy is a means of perfecting castles in the air as yet unmarred by the difficulty of implementation. This is not to denigrate reflection of strategizing since Livermore makes clear that all are important; it’s just to point out that Livermore provides a framework for thinking where your own strengths and weaknesses may lie and how you can work on other areas.

Finally, even though Livermore’s book is primarily about intercultural intelligence in global companies, it also struck me that it is very applicable to academic cultures on most college campuses. Academic institutions, even very small ones, are usually made up of multiple cultures that don’t understand each other’s values, don’t understand the way one another talk, and often have a miserable time trying to work together. The faculty does not understand the culture of the administration or operations, and vice versa. The culture of the administration can fall into the trap of denigrating the culture of the faculty, or at least being mystified by it (and vice versa). Neither faculty or administration easily understand the rapidly changing cultures of the student body. And within and across all these cultures are the larger cultural matrices of the society as a whole–international students and faculty from multiple areas of the world, students and faculty from multiple domestic ethnic backgrounds, different age groups, urban and rural often thrust together, hip and jowl. This cultural cacophony is one reason cultural politics on campus is so fraught and difficult to manage. But it is also our glory. Where else in American life do we ask such a range of people to come together for common purpose, for the common good? If we can do it well, we can be a model for others. I don’t imagine Livermore’s book will get us there, but it has some helpful ideas for steps along the way.

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