Be Like Water—Cultural Adaptability

May 2010, by So-Young Kang

The Awaken Group: Dave, Congratulations on your book “Monkey and the Fish” which has been given several awards recently. What is it about?

Dave: In one word, it’s about “adaptation.” In two words, it’s about “painful adaptation.” How do people weave in and out of multiple cultures; what’s the mindset and skill sets necessary to do that?

The title comes from an Eastern parable: a fish looked like it was caught in a maelstrom and a monkey saw it and thought that the fish was in trouble. So the monkey went into the water and took the fish to dry land, believing that he had just rescued the fish. The monkey left the fish on dry land to rest and then took off, thinking it had done something heroic.

This is similar to how we tend to enter into other cultural contexts—whether it’s an organization, country, or city—we go in with our own preconceptions and own frameworks, and we really don’t listen nor do we know how to adapt to the lives of humans within our reach.

The Awaken Group: What are some of the common challenges you have seen from your international experience when leaders are not adaptable?

Dave: There are multiple problems but the one that affects most people is relationally—they don’t know how to intersect and to actually listen well, and to learn and serve one another. Typically, I’ve found that because of that, they don’t deal with what I call, “the last 10%”—the difficult part of the relationship that no one wants to talk about. They avoid it, but that’s the very thing that will help take the team get to another level. So the challenges in dealing with third culture and adaptation have to do with relational intersections.

The East-West relationship is another significant challenge; leaders not knowing how to go over to the other side.

The Awaken Group: What does it take to be cultural adaptable as a leader?

Dave: It takes a mindset and will to love, learn and serve in any culture.

  1. Listen: Are you really in a posture to hear? Or do you see yourself as a teacher? You will probably learn more from the locals by listening.
  2. Learn: Get to know the culture by spending time in the environment and understanding the beliefs and mindsets of the culture.
  3. Serve: Have a service mentality. Humility goes a long way in different cultural contexts. When people see a spirit of humility, kindness and compassion, it translates well into many cultures.