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  • Randal Tame


Updated: Jul 6, 2020

“I really want to be a great leader in Australia, but I don’t think they will accept a foreigner telling them what to do”.

This unusually frank comment, made to me by a European leader of a global company who had just arrived to head up Australian operations, is perhaps not an unfounded fear.

Many MBA graduates will have similarly found their leadership career taking them to overseas destinations where the ways of doing things is significantly different. As one of my 1993 graduating class said to me after returning from a long stint as a manager in English speaking Canada told me, When I got there I realised I had to throw most of what I had learned about management in Australia out the window. I spent the first year just listening and relearning.”

So, what can one advise these expat leaders about becoming a great leader in foreign places? As usual, the wisdom is in sport…because, sport! A few years back, after a string of embarrassing international sporting losses, Sydney Morning Herald writer David Sygall penned an article Why the distrust of foreign coaches?

“Many wonder how a German football coach, a Kiwi rugby coach, or a South African cricket coach, can truly understand Australian sporting culture, the Australian psyche, what makes Australians tick, and other intangibles. How can they really understand the way the public wants our teams to behave and play? Can we genuinely trust foreign coaches to make decisions in the nation's best interests? And when they make the wrong decisions, how much slack are we willing to cut them compared to [a local] version?”

Sygall is echoing the challenge that my European CEO. As a foreigner, how can he ever really understand and therefore lead “us”? Sygall, however, was wrong about foreign coaches being the cause of our sporting woes but he did raise important questions about why “outsider” leaders have difficulty in influencing followers, engendering trust, group cohesion and follower motivation.

Like many, Sygall understood the problem to be one of “cultural differences”. But crying cultural differences doesn’t actually tell us much at all. It is the intergroup version of “personality clash”, used to describe all the sources of confusion and conflict that no one ever sees coming. It certainly doesn’t help answer questions like those Sygall has asked.

Research has consistently found that leadership relies on the display of qualities, attributes, and behaviours that emphasise what they have in common with their followers. This also means that they also need to emphasise how they are different from the members of other relevant groups (e.g. a relevant comparison group for Australian cricketers might be English cricketers).

Critical for team performance and team success is a coach’s capacity to turn their vision, strategies, and tactics, into the players’ vision, strategies and tactics. To do this a coach must be a leader for those players. Someone who players listen to, trust, and hold in high regard. To be a leader a coach must be one of us.

The reason for this is that, when a shared social identity exists, it is the person who can best represent that identity who will have the most influence. This is because the person who best represents the psychological group, or is most “prototypical”, is also the person who comes to define what it is to be ‘us’. By being “one of us” there is an implicit perception that the leader represents what is important to us and that they can be trusted to pursue our best interest.

Ingroup representativeness is associated with a raft of enviable outcomes. Michael Hogg, Professor of social psychology at Claremont Graduate University, sums this up well: “prototypical leaders are able to be influential, innovative, and transformational because their followers like them, afford them high status, trust them, and view them as relatively charismatic.”

But how does knowing this help our European CEO? How can he establish himself as prototypical of his Australian group? Here’s the promised wisdom of sport.

The Australian cricket coach, the great Darren Lehmann is a former Australian player from a “golden era” of cricket and has a good record as a cricket coach at state level. He has close relationships with Australian cricket legends such as Shane Warne and Craig McDermott, who he brought in as trainers and mentors. He concentrated on building good technical training and support, but also on player welfare and wellbeing. In his first test series in 2013 he kept the same team for every game allowing a strong sense of team identity to develop. Although he didn’t get instant results – he lost the ashes in June in UK – he was given the time to deliver results which he did soon after. He is overweight, smokes, drinks, and his nickname is ‘Boof’; he is practically a walking Australian stereotype. In Feb 2014 he was the 2nd most popular person in the country. Lehmann is, in many ways, the ultimate respected insider.

Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. Mickey Arthurs was Lehmann’s predecessor. A South African, he is a highly successful and skilled cricket coach, but what worked for him in South Africa couldn’t be replicated in the Australian team. When he tried to introduce his own recipe for success the level of conflict in the team rose and the team fragmented into factions (e.g. the cool kids, the outsiders, and the teachers). There was tension and conflict within the team, culminating in the dramatic dropping of four players in the middle of the Indian test matches. The team added a loss in India to their string of disappointments.

Were his techniques wrong? Were the players not good enough? We can’t rule these possibilities out. But what we can say is that Arthurs wasn’t in any obvious way taking the necessary steps to make himself one of the team. As someone starting from the outer, without taking those steps Arthur was always going to be missing a critical ingredient for success.

But let’s be clear, where Sygall and others are wrong is that the poor performance of Australian teams was unlikely due to the “foreignness” of the coaches. A group-based schism like nationality is not a death knell for leadership, even in a context where national pride runs hot. You just have to work for it. An aspiring leader needs to be an “entrepreneur of identity” they need to embody those things that mark out the distinctiveness of the group. In most cases this will require high levels of skill and energy.

One foreign coach who was an entrepreneur of identity is Guus Hiddink, the successful Dutch coach of the Australian national soccer team. Sygall quotes this account from Hiddink’s assistant coach Graham Arnold:

"The thing that really stood out for me with Guus was that he was a marvel at wanting to understand the Australian mentality. He didn't want to change anything". He frequently said to me 'I need to become Australian. They don't need to become Dutch'. He just wanted to improve what we were already good at - the never-say-die attitude - he didn't want to change us. A foreign coach works when they buy into it, when they try to really understand what we're about."

Guus is a case study in the skill and effort required to become a leader of the team. He built followership by displaying group-oriented motives and actions. Critically, he was a champion the Australian-ness of the Australian team. That’s a powerful demonstration of ingroup credentials.

Can a foreign coach, or a foreign business leader, be successful? The answer is yes. It isn’t nationality at the heart of the issue, nor cultural differences. Any leader hoping to lead a new group, if they are to have influence and impact, must understand the identity of their followers and help to define that identity. With this understanding they must then be one of us and perhaps, above all, they must be seen to champion the group’s interest above all else.

Would you like to learn more about social identity leadership? See our blog at

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