I’m a big fan of TED talks and last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a TED event. The day involved 23 speakers and performers from all walks of life and from all over world. The only thing they had in common was they were really passionate about what they were talking about.

I learnt about Kurdish women’s rights; the way that mobile technology is transforming healthcare in Africa and early morning healthy raving. However the talk that stood out for me was about cultural intelligence.

The woman who gave the talk was Julia Middleton, founder and CEO of Common Purpose Charitable Trust. The trust aims to ‘give people the inspiration, skills and connections to become better leaders, both at work and in society.’

Middleton believes that in the future, organisations will appoint leaders for their cultural intelligence (CQ), rather than for their IQ. She reasons that the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and to be successful, leaders must understand and lead people from culturally different backgrounds.

So how do you develop Cultural Intelligence? You start by looking in at yourself. In particular, at two components of yourself – ‘core’ and ‘flex’.

 

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Your ‘core’ is what you believe defines you. It’s something that won’t change easily, your personal ‘over my dead body’ list. Their solidity is your strength. Your ‘flex’ is what you will change. It’s things about yourself that you adapt to different places, people and cultures. Their fluidity is your strength.

The balance between your core and your flex is constantly changing. When you’re very young, you tend to adopt your core from your parents. However when you go through your teens, your core shrinks as more of yourself moves into flex. Typically this is the time you’re the most open to different ideas and values as your idea of ‘self’ isn’t well defined. As you get older, the reverse tends to happen. There are fewer things about yourself that you’re willing to change, you’re more ‘stuck in your in your ways’.

To be culturally intelligent you must constantly test this balance between core and flex. You mustn’t judge other people with yourself as a benchmark. You must question everything that’s in your core and keep changing your flex in response to the world around you. This isn’t easy, you might find ugly parts of your core, knots that you find difficult to move into flex. However by constantly evaluating your values, you’re able to expand your flex and find common ground with more people from different cultural backgrounds.

I think the concept of cultural intelligence is a really useful way to look at the world. Recently it has helped me make sense of horrific events such as the Charlie Hebdo attack. For some Muslims, the visual depiction of the prophet Muhammed makes part of their identity, part of their core which they don’t want to change. For non-muslims however, the same depictions are in their flex. Whether prophet Muhammed is depicted or not, non-muslims are likely to feel comfortable either way.

Of course this doesn’t justify the murder of innocent people. Instead, it illustrates the dangers of an increasingly global world without the cultural intelligence to keep up. Perhaps this helps explain the growing divide between some communities in France and across the world.