How to Embrace Vulnerability in Leadership

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Culture Map" by Erin Meyer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is an egalitarian culture? How does egalitarianism manifest in leadership?

In an egalitarian culture, the power distance is low. In other words, everybody is equal​​—even in the workplace. Members of egalitarian cultures are also more likely to act on their own and ask for forgiveness instead of permission.

Keep reading to learn about the key characteristics of egalitarian cultures and how they develop.

Defining Egalitarian Leadership

Companies in egalitarian cultures tend to have a flat organizational structure. People speak as easily to the CEO as they do to the lowest-ranking employee. (Shortform note: Another feature of egalitarian cultures that Meyer doesn’t mention is that its members are more likely to act on their own and ask for forgiveness instead of permission.) 

In meetings, everybody’s ideas have equal value. The boss’s rank doesn’t protect his/her suggestions from criticism. Problems are pushed down to the people who know them best. (Shortform note: International management consultancy Sinickas adds that meeting participants speak informally and from the heart. In contrast, hierarchical cultures prefer scripts in meetings and presentations.)  

The boss uses external cues to indicate that he/she is ‘one of the guys,’ such as by dressing casually or forgoing an office. (Shortform note: These external cues start early in some egalitarian cultures. In the Netherlands and Sweden, students call teachers by their first names.)  

Most people claim they prefer to be led and to lead in an egalitarian style. But in practice, leaders who aren’t used to egalitarian followers find them disrespectful. And employees often view egalitarian managers as weak and unable to provide direction. (Shortform note: One Stanford study suggests that people prefer hierarchical leadership styles because the familiarity of hierarchical relationships makes them easier to understand. Whereas egalitarian relationships can be confusing to navigate, in a hierarchy, everyone’s roles and level of authority are clear.) 

How Egalitarian Cultures Develop

Meyer hypothesizes that two major factors influenced how today’s egalitarian cultures developed.

The first factor is historical. The most egalitarian cultures in the world are concentrated in Northern Europe, which was historically dominated by the Vikings. The Vikings were very modern in their ways: Everybody got a say in major decisions, and Iceland, which they founded, is one of the world’s first democracies. Meyer argues that the ideals behind the Vikings’ political system remain evident in the egalitarian leadership styles of the cultures they once ruled. 

(Shortform note: The Vikings are popularly thought to have had more gender equality than their contemporaries. Does modern-day workplace egalitarianism also equate to gender egalitarianism? Sometimes, according to the Women’s Workplace Equality Index, but it’s not a perfect match. For example, Denmark and the Netherlands are both high-egalitarian cultures with high women’s workplace equality. However, Israel is high-egalitarian but lower in women’s workplace equality. Conversely, Japan and Nigeria are both hierarchical with low workplace equality, but hierarchical South Korea has very high workplace equality.)  

The second factor is religion. Egalitarian cultures tend to be more Protestant. Meyer notes that Protestant countries broke away from the strict structure of the Roman Catholic Church, allowing them to develop non-hierarchical systems. Furthermore, Meyer states, Protestants value the individual’s relationship with God, and argues that these ideals are evident in the leadership styles of the cultures they dominate. 

(Shortform note: Other key features of Protestantism also elevate the role of the individual, which further supports Meyer’s argument. Protestants believe that the Bible and Scripture are the highest religious authorities, while Catholics also follow the Church’s teachings. Furthermore, Protestants believe that people are saved through faith only. Catholics find salvation in practices that require a hierarchical relationship, such as confessing their sins to a priest.)

Understanding Leadership in Egalitarian Cultures

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Erin Meyer's "The Culture Map" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Culture Map summary:

  • The eight axes you can use as a framework to analyze cultural differences
  • How to better relate to those of another culture to accomplish business goals
  • How the Vikings have more gender equality than we see today

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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