Connecting Leadership, Intercultural Competence, and Innovation

Xiangfei 2

By Jason Patent, Director of the Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership


No two days are alike at the Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership at UC Berkeley’s International House. One day a group of 50 students arrives from mainland China to study global leadership and innovation; another day, we are training scientists and researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on bias and communicating effectively across cultures; the next, taking I-House residents on educational excursions to unfamiliar and stereotyped communities in San Francisco and Oakland as part of their social justice leadership development.

Of all the work we do, though, none has proven as impactful as our Intercultural Leadership Initiative (ILI). First, though, a bit more context around CIL.

The Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership (CIL) was formally launched at International House Berkeley — a multi-cultural student campus residence and program center housing around 580 UC Berkeley students, postdocs and visiting scholars — in July 2014, after several years of successful informal work helping I-House residents and campus staff develop professional competencies related to intercultural communication. The primary charge of CIL is to infuse residential life at I-House with intercultural skill-building, but we also frequently work with staff and students throughout UC Berkeley, and with external organizations.

The perceived need for CIL sprang from international education research that has demonstrated convincingly that intercultural competence rarely develops in a vacuum: simply bringing together people from different cultures rarely leads to significant increases in intercultural competence, and under certain circumstances can actually lead to decreases in intercultural competence (Vande Berg, Connor-Linton, & Paige, 2009). With a track record of over 86 years — I-House Berkeley opened in 1930 — I-House is an ideal environment in which to experiment with innovative methods of developing intercultural competence in a university residential life setting.

The Intercultural Leadership Initiative (ILI)

Our flagship program for I-House residents is the Intercultural Leadership Initiative, or ILI. In this semester-long certificate program, a select group of 12-20 I-House residents receive intensive training in key intercultural leadership competencies. As part of the onboarding process, each student takes the Global Competencies Inventory (GCI), which measures 16 separate competencies related to intercultural leadership. Each student then participates in a one-hour debrief, identifying strengths and areas for growth.

Then, throughout the semester, students participate weekly in a broad range of experiential activities designed to develop each of the inventory’s 16 global competencies.

For instance, one activity, invented by CIL, involves a team of six students tasked with building structures out of LEGO bricks under time pressure. One of the six students is assigned as leader. Unbeknownst to the leader, the five teammates have been coached to respond well only to certain behaviors on the part of the leader. The team might, for example, have been coached to respond well only when the leader tells them explicitly what to do; they might respond with silence and inaction if the leader asks them for their own opinions. The behaviors chosen are based on research on different culturally-based leadership and followership behaviors.

Under such conditions the leader must be able to notice quickly what their team’s preferences are, and to adapt their behavior appropriately, all within a brief time frame. As an additional challenge, sometimes teams comprise members with more than one leadership style preference, requiring the leader to respond to a diverse range of preferences in order to be successful.

This simulation helps students in developing the global competencies known as Self-Awareness, Tolerance of Ambiguity, and Stress Management, and lends itself well to discussion around the realities of leading diverse teams and organizations.

A second example is an activity called “Building Utopistan.” In this activity teams are tasked with designing a new nation from the ground up, focusing on the specific cultural values that will take precedence, and developing laws that spring from such values. For instance, a team might choose the value of hierarchy (over, say, equality), and a law that expresses this value might be something along the lines of requiring people of lower status to use formal titles when addressing people of higher status.

The laws aren’t meant to be realistic; rather, the activity forces the students to prioritize different values, and to connect values to action. This benefits students on two levels. First, they become more aware of the values that drive their own behaviors. Second, they gain insight into the process of generating consensus in a diverse group.

CIL Commencement Group

Building Utopistan helps develop Self-Identity and Nonjudgmentalness.

Proceeding in this way over the course of the semester, students work on all 16 of the competencies for global leadership. At semester’s end the students retake the GCI and get another one-hour debrief of their results.

The GCI measures each competency on a scale from 1 to 7. We are just beginning to gather data on the success of ILI in impacting GCI scores.  Last semester, the cohort experienced an average gain, per competency, of 0.58 points. We know this is a large gain; what we don’t yet have is a control group for comparison purposes. We hope to have such data by December 2017.

Meanwhile, anecdotally, ILI graduates report having gained greatly from participating in the program. The following sums up the benefits of ILI nicely:

The key thing I will take away from ILI is that global leaders must be able to shift strategies and personal styles to fit different cultural environments, and leaders must also be able to adapt to get the best out of employees who have different backgrounds and motivations. ILI taught me that we need to appreciate the similarities humans from all over the world have with each other. But, I also learned we definitely should not underestimate our cultural differences.

We continue to experiment with how to make ILI more effective, and look forward to more quantitative measures of its impact.

Benefits of ILI to CIL and to the Field

ILI allows us to experiment with different ideas and methods, enabling us to make all of our work more relevant and effective for participants. Here are some examples.

Connecting Disparate-Seeming Fields

One of the most exciting discoveries we have made at CIL revolves around the connections among intercultural competence, leadership, and innovation. Through leading ILI, and through designing and leading workshops in all three areas, we have found that there appear to be at least four core attributes and skills that are central to intercultural competence, leadership, and innovation:

  1. Willingness to challenging one’s own perceptions and perspectives;
  2. Openness to others’ differing perceptions and perspectives, even if they go counter to one’s own default preferences;
  3. Maintaining a curious and learning-centered approach to problem-solving and human interaction;
  4. Tolerating — and sometimes even thriving within — ambiguity.

Each area — intercultural competence, leadership, and innovation — also contains unique aspects, but we have found these four to be central to all three areas.

Learning Through Experience

Working in a university context, CIL is surrounded by students whose intellectual lives are full of knowledge and more knowledge, but tend to lack any connection to their emotional experiences or to their learning concrete skills beyond their academic majors.

Primarily through ILI, CIL has crafted and honed an approach that is firmly grounded in experiential learning theory. In all of our programs we aim to guide our participants through skill-building activities aimed at developing the knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs [1]) that are crucial to effective and inclusive leadership.

Central to this approach is David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) (Kolb, 1984). Graphically the cycle is represented in four stages as follows:

David Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle

Everything begins with Concrete Experience (CE). We experience events all the time. Culture shapes everything about how we experience events, and when events feel unfamiliar or strange or confounding to us, we feel uncomfortable and will tend to jump to (usually negative) conclusions about the actors involved. This is the fundamental phenomenon behind what is commonly called “culture shock,” and what makes it so “shocking” is the disconnect between the raw sensory data in our new environment and our ingrained habits of perceiving and interpreting. Culture shock is especially powerful if we are simply left to fester in this state of confusion.

For this reason educators like to offer opportunities for debriefing, leading to the next stage in Kolb’s cycle, Reflective Observation (RO). This process helps us begin to unravel our raw emotional reactions, by giving us “venting” space, simply to speak about how we felt as we experienced the event. When well facilitated, RO enables the student to begin to feel validated in their experience.

The true magic of experiential education happens in the next stage, Abstract Conceptualization (AC), for it is in this stage that the student begins truly to make sense of their experience, by forming hypotheses about how the event fits within broader cultural systems. Without AC, it wouldn’t matter how “okay” a student felt about any given experience; they still would not be able to connect that experience with culture. It is only through the analytic process of AC that students begin to form ideas about systems that differ, and about how they differ.

Now that we have a hypothesis in mind about how our experience connects to culture, we are ready to move to Active Experimentation (AE), which charges the student with taking new discoveries back out into the field, trying new behaviors and checking the results against the hypotheses they formed during AC. These experiments generate new concrete experiences, and the cycle begins anew.

It might be helpful to take a specific example. Let’s use hypothetical student Pat, a U.S. American studying abroad in Harbin, China.

CE: One of the things that bothers Pat during her walks and cab rides around Harbin (CE) is that, in her words, “Everybody’s honking their horns all the time.” She finds this extremely annoying.

RO: During a session of her study abroad program’s course on intercultural leadership, she shares this with her teacher, who offers her the chance to process her experiences. Pat expresses her annoyance, and says, “Why do they have to do that? It’s so obnoxious. Why can’t they just drive normally?”

AC: Taking Pat’s “why” question at face value, Pat’s teacher begins a classroom discussion around this. After a few minutes, one of Pat’s classmates comes up with a hypothesis: “Didn’t bicycles use to be the way most people got around? And wouldn’t they have used their bike bells to warn people they were in danger of colliding with? Maybe a car horn is just the car equivalent of a bike bell.”

AE: Pat is skeptical. She’s still convinced that Harbin drivers are just an angry lot and use their car horns to express their anger. But when nudged by her teacher, Pat says she is willing to test the hypothesis by seeing if she can find any patterns in the use of car horns.

CE: Pat spends an hour one afternoon sitting near a busy intersection, and noticing when people use their car horns. Sure enough, it seems as if the overwhelming majority of car horn usage comes when a collision looks imminent. Adding this data to her understanding of car horn usage in China (or at least in Harbin), she has arrived at a more nuanced (and probably more accurate) interpretation of a behavior that she did not understand before.

If we could represent the ELC three-dimensionally, we might choose an ascending spiral over a flat cycle, in order to demonstrate that with each completion of a cycle, learning has happened.

Kolb’s ELC is especially well suited to longer-term programs like ILI, since students are required time and again to go out, have experiences, and bring them back to the group for RO and AC. Activities and discussions are enhanced throughout the semester through the introduction and application of specific theoretical frameworks.

Holistic Human Learning

One assumption behind this discussion of the ELC is worth bringing out explicitly: experiential learning is CIL Groupbest suited to particular contexts, namely contexts in which traditional classroom learning is not enough to meet relevant KSAs. And here it is worth mentioning another relevant theoretical construct, Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956). Bloom is most famous for articulating that humans learn in more ways than just standard classroom learning, that is, through the dissemination of knowledge (cognitive domain). Humans also learn emotionally (affective domain) and through action (behavioral domain). If we want to unleash human potential, we must pay adequate attention to all three domains.

When looking through the prism of Bloom’s Taxonomy, we can see that the ELC incorporates all three domains: cognitive (AC), affective (CE/RO) and behavioral (AE/CE). We can thus think of the ELC as a model for implementing Bloom’s Taxonomy, providing a recipe for maximizing human learning.

Future Directions for CIL

Like any organization focused on learning, CIL faces challenges in scaling. Our efforts in the immediate future are focused around developing stand-alone online modules that are capable of reaching far more people per staff hour than we are currently able to reach.

We are also continuously exploring the overlap between intercultural leadership and leadership within equity, diversity, and inclusion circles. We believe we will succeed to the extent that we can bring in meaningful content addressing power and privilege, which the intercultural world has tended not to emphasize.

And finally, we are seeking opportunities to work with organizations external to UC Berkeley, in order to bring the mission of International House to bear on the vital work of organizations the world over.

For example, we see great potential for CIL in influencing how global leadership (in the corporate and non-profit worlds) and global citizenship (in higher education) are thought of and developed. One of CIL’s contributions that we think can benefit organizations is the distinction discussed above among cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning, along with specific models and tools to apply to each domain, and to all three domains together. Learning often doesn’t take hold in organizations because of a lack of balance among these three domains. As our young center continues to grow, we hope we continue to find ourselves in conversations at higher levels in organizational hierarchies. As we develop more and more scalable learning platforms, we can help accelerate human learning in areas that — when humans are functioning closer to our full potential as a species — can help transform the world into a place where it is the norm, rather than the exception, for extremely diverse teams to work productively together to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Learn more at or

End Notes

[1] Practitioners are likely accustomed to “A” in “KSA” standing for “abilities.” Our usage stems from best practices in intercultural education. The term “attitude” is meant to refer to affective, or emotional, learning; see discussion above on Bloom’s Taxonomy.


Bloom, Benjamin S.  (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, by a Committee of College and University Examiners. Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain. New York, NY: Longmans.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning as the Science of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Vande Berg, Michael, Connor-Linton, Jeffrey, & Paige, R. Michael. (Fall 2009). The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for Student Learning Abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, vol. 18, pp.1-75.

Written by:

Jason D. Patent is Chief of Operations and Director of the Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership at International House Berkeley. A fluent Mandarin speaker, he has been involved in international education for 25+ years, including ten years living in  China — most recently as American Co-Director of the Hopkins–Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. At I-House Jason is leading initiatives to increase intercultural competence at I-House, across the UC Berkeley campus, and beyond. He can be reached at