Leadership Communication Beyond Borders: Aponte-Moreno Reveals Why Similarities Trump Differences

With an eye on global politics—past and present—Assistant Professor of Global Business Marco Aponte-Moreno hopes his research on leadership communication will help to flip the script on cultural stereotypes.

Professor Marco Aponte-Moreno

"Most research in intercultural management and communication has focused on looking at cultural differences and exploring how to overcome them,” said Aponte-Moreno.

“I would like to shift the debate from a focus on differences to a focus on similarities. For example, instead of teaching American managers and leaders about the cultural differences that they need to be aware of when doing business in China, I think it would be more interesting and useful to teach them about the cultural similarities between the U.S. and China."

"I’m not saying that we should not address cultural differences, but the main focus should be on similarities. After all, every time we start pointing out cultural differences in a particular culture we unavoidably end up speaking about stereotypes: French people are like this, Americans are like that, etcetera,” he said. 

"Erving Goffman’s book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, has been a strong influence in my work. He argues that any human social interaction is a performance. I believe that acting can be an invaluable tool to express our inner selves, to be authentic. A leader who understands how performance works is able to communicate more truthfully with followers of different cultural backgrounds," said Aponte-Moreno.

Aponte-Moreno has written extensively about political leadership in Venezuela. His work has appeared in numerous international media outlets including the BBC, The Guardian, The World Policy Journal, and the International Policy Digest. His doctoral dissertation analyzed the leadership discourse of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez over a period of nine years. He is also a Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy and an active member of the International Leadership Association.

Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Aponte-Moreno first attended college in Paris, France. Graduating with a BA in modern languages (and a minor in international business) from the Sorbonne University, he got his MBA from Nicholls State University, a public university in South Louisiana. He then moved to Miami for a career in international banking, focusing specifically on Latin American markets, after which he relocated to New York City, where he continued to work in international banking. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, he seriously reconsidered his life path, deciding to go back into academia. 

Aponte-Moreno is specifically interested in how leaders use linguistic elements and artistic techniques in their efforts to inspire followers across cultures. In one study, he argues that using personal stories as a way to communicate authentic leadership is not as universal as we might think, but predominantly an American custom. He studied attitudes and perceptions of graduate business students from forty-one different countries at a UK university who were aspiring leaders. Results were gathered from three stages of testing: analysis of responses from an interview aimed at determining whether authenticity is considered an important leadership trait across cultures, analysis of findings from two experiments aimed at measuring the effectiveness of telling personal stories to communicate authentic leadership across cultures, and discussion of written reflections by English and Chinese respondents on the role of personal stories to communicate authentic leadership in their perspective cultures.

He argues that authenticity seems to be an attribute that is valued across cultures, but that when trying to communicate authentically in leadership contexts, personal stories are likely to be effective in some cultures but not in others. His findings suggest that telling personal stories works well in Anglo Saxon cultures where self-disclosure is prevalent (and to a certain extent, celebrated) but not as well in Confucian Asian cultures, where people tend to be more reserved.  

This November Aponte-Moreno presented two papers at the International Leadership Association conference. One paper was about the use of the actor’s imagination in leadership communication. It argues that theater techniques used by actors to stimulate their imagination and move audiences, can also be used by leaders when trying to inspire their followers. The second paper was a case study on the Venezuelan system of youth orchestras. This system, which has been around for 41 years, was created to promote social change through the teaching of classical music.

"Some of the most talented young musicians in classical music today come from this system. Gustavo Dudamel, the current director of the LA Philharmonic, is its most famous graduate. The paper describes the principles and pedagogy behind the system, and shows how it fosters leadership skills among its young musicians. Considering the economic, social and political crisis in Venezuela today, it is quite remarkable that the system has prevailed despite the dreadful circumstances," said Aponte-Moreno 

Through his work, Aponte-Moreno also hopes to increase the international awareness of the social, political, and economic crisis that his native country is facing at the moment, including exposing the terrible current humanitarian crisis. "People are starving and have very limited access to healthcare and medicines. Creating an international awareness of the dreadful situation might contribute to put pressure on the Venezuelan government to improve the situation and strengthen democracy," he said.

"As a Venezuelan academic interested in leadership, I follow closely what happens in the country and often write about it for the international press. I have been following the situation since 1999, when Hugo Chávez was elected president. I was particularly interested in the way Chávez used language to gain popular support," said Aponte-Moreno. A recent article he wrote covered one of the largest protests in the country, which occurred on September 1, aimed at holding a referendum to revoke President Nicolás Maduro’s term in office. The article focused on the lack of media coverage of this monumental event and delved into the current deep economic issues affecting the country due to the fall in oil prices from $110 per barrel two years ago to approximately $45 today, which  turned economic decline into catastrophe.

His article speaks to the country’s resulting severe shortages of basic goods, lack of medicine, and hyperinflation. Venezuelans spend hours waiting in line to buy food, only to find supermarkets shelves bare. According to Aponte-Moreno, the country has one of the world’s highest murder rates, with 28,000 homicides in 2015 according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an independent local non-governmental organization. Meanwhile, Maduro and his ministries have tried to blame the crisis on an “economic war” and a “media war” planned by Venezuelan elites and orchestrated by the United States. Maduro says that he will not give up power, even though his approval rating has sunk to 24.3 percent.

According to Aponte-Moreno, there are many parallels between what happened in Venezuela in 1999 and what is currently happening in the US.

"From a leadership perspective, it is safe to say that Hugo Chávez and Donald Drumpf are two sides of the same coin,” said Aponte-Moreno. “They can be seen as two extremes of the same spectrum: Chávez to the left and Drumpf to the right. Both leaders are demagogues who appeal to their followers’ prejudices. This creates deep division and polarization in society." 

"In Chávez’s discourse, he fueled social resentment and stressed the gap between the poor and rich. In Drumpf’s discourse, he fuels xenophobia and stresses the gap between citizens and foreigners. In addition, both leaders show strong nationalistic rhetoric. While Venezuela’s former president adopted a strong anti-American discourse, Drumpf has adopted an anti-Mexican rhetoric, in which Mexican immigrants are framed as rapists and thieves. Also, while Chávez often used anti-Semitic rhetoric in his political discourse, Drumpf’s discourse shows strong elements of Islamophobia."

"Both leaders are seen as outsiders from the political establishment—they are authoritarian, and are known for having huge egos,” added Aponte-Moreno. “They accuse traditional media of being biased, and call their political opponents criminals. In both cases, and despite their nationalistic rhetoric, they embrace a foreign country and allow it to intervene in domestic affairs. In the case of Venezuela it was Cuba (and now deceased Fidel Castro) while in the case of the US it seems to be Russia (and Vladimir Putin)."
"Based on what we have seen in Venezuela, and considering the parallels between the two political situations, we have to take seriously what Donald Drumpf says. Everything starts with discourse. When Chávez said he was going to go after the media, he did it. When he said he was going to imprison political opponents, he did it. When he said he was going to change the Constitution, he did it. Although the institutions in this country are stronger than what they were in Venezuela when Chávez took office in 1999, we should never underestimate the power of the spoken word in the mouth of populists."

"I believe that there is a strong tradition of free speech in the U.S. in general and at Saint Mary’s College in particular. This is something that is very important for me as a lot of my work has political dimensions. The College offers me an invaluable platform to present my work freely to the research community and to the world," he said. He finds that the focus on global business and ethics, Think Globally, Lead Responsibly, hits home. "I hope that my research will contribute to create global and responsible leaders so that we can have a better world."

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