On my journey to explore culture and its effects on leadership, I hear many stories. Here is one worth sharing:

Not too long ago a Korean woman, Ji-young, traveled to Brussels for a one-week leadership development course. She arrived early, enjoyed a weekend of leisure in a city she loved exploring and rested to start her training in great shape!

On Monday morning, she arrived in the classroom and met her classmates for the coming days–people from all over the world. The participants were having a great time, the trainers were energetic about delivering the course material, and during lunch time food and conversations were robust. All in all, Ji-young was having a great time and truly benefiting from the experience. So, all was in order in the world (or close enough not to notice that issues were percolating under the surface).

At the end of the last day of the program, the participants all received their attendance certificates with some ceremony and celebration. Soon everyone had received his/her certificate. All were happy, congratulating each other, chatting, planning what they would do when they got home and how the lessons learned during the week would help them change their life at work and at home.

All were happy, but one! There was Ji-young who stood on her own, looking at her certificate with disbelief. One of the trainers went up to her and checked on what was happening. She explained her shock: by Korean standards, having her name written in red on her certificate meant that a curse would be placed on her and her whole family. In Korea (as well as in some other Asian countries), red ink is traditionally used to write the names of the dead–so receiving her name written in red was wishing her ill fortune and extending that ill fortune to all of her relatives! Talk about an unintended impact on a participant at the end of a wonderful week! If you were the faculty in this program, what would you have done to leave the participant with positive feelings?

No one can be aware of all cultures, let alone all superstitions. Yet, in a globally connected world, we must  make sure we know enough to focus on the diverse needs of clients and colleagues throughout the world.

Most of us have witnessed similar events–even if not as striking as this one! If you have personally experienced or witnessed this type of experience and are willing to share it, I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or reach me at duquea@ccl.org.

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