Global Leadership – what exactly does this mean?

“The two most popular words in the business lexicon are probably ‘global’ and ‘leadership’. Put them together and people in suits start to salivate.”

The answer to this question has been fairly elusive to me ever since I got involved with intercultural work. The standard response, the one you hear in business schools throughout the world, would probably include that great global leaders are able to adapt their entrepreneurial and managerial skills to various economic and cultural environments.

These poster child global leaders also know how to attract, train, motivate and retain the best talent in different markets. Of course our ideal global leader is proficient in at least three languages, culturally intelligent, doesn’t hesitate to relocate to new destinations, integrates smoothly in her/his surrounding, and overall improves a company’s bottom line – regardless of location.

It is probably safe to say that this image of a successful global leader is mostly a phantasy. There are certainly many capable and competent managers out there who fit this definition, but let’s face it: Very few people are very good at many things at the same time. That is why truly successful leaders try to expand their skill sets continuously.

This attempt to define an ideal of global leadership is all the more difficult if you keep a few outside factors in mind. For one, there is what could be described as the illusion of globalization: Despite the growing international interdependence of countries and economies our world isn’t as flat as many of us assume. Just look at the data. Pankaj Ghemawat does a compelling job of putting the world’s globalization levels into perspective:

A recent article in The Economist about how “the global-leadership industry needs re-engineering” argues along similar lines:

But there is also a case for reforming the global-leadership industry. The people who run it need to think hard about what they mean by both globalisation and leadership. People whose jobs require constant whizzing through airports often overestimate the extent of globalisation. Most other folk live in the same country all their lives. Most trade occurs within national borders. Nearly all politics is local.

Even if you neglect the unconnected parts of our world to focus on the very hyper-connected elements of human or corporate interaction, you will still need people with the right skills to navigate through these ethnocentric local jungles, right? People who can carry your organization’s vision into new markets and implement the strategies you’ve outlined at headquarters. The demand for these people with global leadership skills has been growing in the last couple of decades, yet there still appears to be somewhat of a global skills gap:

Big firms no longer aspire merely to train competent managers. They pride themselves on their ability to select and train leaders for global roles. This is not all guff. Many industries are globalising fast, creating waves of disruption. Parochial companies may perish. Global ones complain that a shortage of global talent impedes their growth, especially in emerging markets. Yet they rapidly burn through what global talent they have: by one estimate, nearly 80% of CEOs of S&P 500 firms are ousted before retirement. So there is clearly a need for global leadership.

Now, these are sobering numbers. And so are the findings of a 2012 report from The Korn/Ferry Institute, which was highlighted by The Telegraph:

Roughly a fifth of executives who move overseas for a new role with their company give up and return home within two years – well before the end of their assignment – leaving their employers out of pocket and unable to exploit growth opportunities abroad. While a great deal of effort at multinational organizations goes into securing the right people for overseas roles, too little time is spent on helping people assimilate into new cultures, such as support with uprooting an executive’s children into new schools. Executives are stifled by the lack of help with financial matters, taxes, networking and housing, which leads to some managers refusing to try and fit in with their local culture.

Among the problems identified in the Korn/Ferry report is the phenomenon that many CEOs and HR/Talent Development departments are a little myopic when hiring for international roles or placing in-house talent overseas. Where they should be investigating for the best talent that can also close the gap between their home culture and their new location, the C-suite often focuses too much on the CV and annual performance reviews. Far too many companies fail to assess cultural adaptability within their talent pool. Thus, measurable competencies such as flexibility or whether someone is motivated to learn a new language go undetected.

What can be done to close this gap? I agree with the Economist writer: “Company bosses who fail to notice this [global/local dualism] may underestimate political risks or ignore cultural differences, and such errors may prove disastrous. The best global leaders need to immerse themselves in local cultures.” Allow me to add that it is arguably best to practice this immersion for years at a time. Repeated, extended business travel – which seems to become the dominant trend in global talent mobility – will not yield the same results.

If you want to develop solid cultural competency you would be well advised to invest in training and continuous coaching for your global leaders. Part of such training should be, among other things, to lead the up-and-coming talent away from the temptation of thinking of global leadership roles as an ascent into the highest spheres of business.

“Clever businesspeople have a tendency to be arrogant at the best of the times; telling them that they are masters of the universe can only magnify it. Arrogance breeds mistakes. […] If leadership has a secret sauce, it may well be humility. A humble boss understands that there are things he doesn’t know. He listens.”

ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees overcome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!


11 thoughts on “Global Leadership – what exactly does this mean?

  1. Great article Christian!

    Global and leadership are words that are so over and misused today. They tend to lose all meaning. I especially appreciate the last quote and the aspect of humility in leadership. Not much of that is talked about or discussed in leadership training programs these days. Or at least I have not yet found it in the curriculum with self-assertiveness and “take-no-prisoners” negotiating skills. Humility is something learned, acquired through both failure and success and not a quality that can be taught.
    Thanks once again

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting, William. While the concept of humility may not always be an integral part of cultural training programs, I’ve been making an effort to address this in my programs. Especially those I am doing with German and American transferees.

  3. Hi Christian,
    I find it highly interesting how many expats make statements like: “They are doing it all wrong here. We are doing it better there. So, we need to do it like we are doing it back there.” Clearly, a good business concept may very well work anywhere on the planet, however it will not sustain without a degree of localization and integration in culture and traditions. The same thing applies to people. If we don’t integrate and respect local traditions and habits in our behaviour and concepts, we will not see long term success. There is no way around.
    Have a good one!

    • Great comments, Thorsten! I completely agree with your position.
      Smart companies select and develop the right talent which is required to be successful in a global context.

      Thanks for reading!

      Gruß zurück,

    • Thank you for reading & commenting, Dianne!
      Having lived in the Southern U.S. for so long my antenna sometimes picks up weird signals. I assume you view “practical” and “down-to-earth” as positive attributes… ?

  4. Great post Christian, Many people who say “global leadership” think in fact how to make local people think like them and embrace the “global corporate culture”. I think that the word “glocalization” describes best what should be global leadership: A global vision with localization of management best practices.

  5. Some Americans in our company have complained about Asian management not being able to adapt to American culture. When some of these same individuals go to Mexico, they struggle to adapt to Mexican culture.

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