Scroll through many articles on Forbes, Fast Company, and even Harvard Business Review and you get the sense that leadership is a universal skill set that includes 5 am workouts, giving people autonomy, communicating transparently, and eliminating anything that resembles hierarchy. But the majority of what is published on leadership is very biased toward a Western leadership context.
A few years ago, I reviewed leadership content published over a five-year period including books, articles, seminars, and even business school curriculum. Roughly 90 percent of the content I reviewed was designed for leading in individualist, low power distance cultures. Yet 70 percent of the world is collectivist and high power distance.
Today, most leadership contexts include people with a diversity of values and backgrounds on the same team. This is why organizations need global leaders. As outlined in the first article of this series, a global leader is defined as one who can influence a diverse group to work toward common goals within a global context. Gen Z require a different kind of leadership than Millennials do.
The way you build trust with a new client in Toronto will more than likely differ from the way you build trust with someone in Manitoba.
Global leadership is not about geography. It’s about having the dynamic agility to lead anyone, anywhere.
Let me start with a foundational concept for why organizations everywhere need global leaders, followed by three more specific reasons.
First, let’s think about “followers,” a group too often overlooked when talking about leadership. Not all followers want the same thing from their leaders. This is explained by an enormously useful idea known as implicit leadership theory, which says whether you lead effectively is not only based on your leadership skills; it’s as much determined by your followers’ expectations of leaders. When I first assumed a leadership role at an organization in Singapore, I prided myself on inviting support staff to join me for lunch. They consistently turned me down. I thought they’d be thrilled that the boss wanted to socialize with them. They found it incredibly uncomfortable. This is an example of implicit leadership theory at work. It didn’t matter that my intention was to lead them by building informal, equitable relationships. I was violating their expectations of how a leader is supposed to behave.
Implicit leadership theory is the underlying reason organizations need global leaders. Your ability to influence a diverse group toward common goals means you lead in light of the implicit values and assumptions of those who follow you. You might choose to challenge their values and assumptions but you ignore them at your peril.
But let’s get more specific. Here are three driving reasons organizations need global leaders now more than ever.
Disruption: From Chaos to Courageous Clarity
Globalization and technology have put additional pressure on leaders to move swiftly, deliberately, and thoughtfully amid the constant onslaught of volatility and chaos. One wrong move and you can be faced with a PR nightmare or data breach. Add a global pandemic and leaders have had to quickly reconsider policies around remote working, business travel, and vaccinations as well as how to handle a sudden recession and broken supply chains.
Organizations need leaders who can sense, interpret, and act on the signals happening at the periphery of these crises. They need leaders with the strategic foresight and cultural intelligence to discern, influence, and lead with courageous clarity without pretending there aren’t some inevitable risks and uncertainties.
Diversity: From Inequity to Inclusive Innovation
A recent study found that “Diversity and Inclusion Manager’ is the second fastest-growing job in the US. A similar emphasis on diversity hires is happening in many other regions globally as well. Unfortunately, too many of these new D&I managers are given little to no budget and are left to address diversity issues on their own. Organizations need global leaders who work with their D&I teams to not only hire diverse staff but to also develop a strategy to successfully include them and learn from their diverse perspectives.
Executives at many organizations are investing large amounts of time and money in design thinking as a way to better understand their customers. But designing a solution for a customer in Jakarta may result in a vastly different product and marketing plan than empathizing with one in London or Minneapolis. Organizations need global leaders who link their D&I efforts with UX and innovation. Diverse staff have built-in expertise about the pain points, values, and expectations of diverse customers. Organizations need leaders who create inclusive environments that provide both a sense of belonging and a source of innovation for continued growth and effectiveness.
Digital: From Scarcity to Scalable Solutions
Finally, organizations need leaders who can navigate the onslaught of competition across the digital terrain. Who would have thought that Marks & Spencer, Carrefour, and Saks would be competing with a little start-up in China? Alibaba started with 18 people in an apartment in China. Today, they’re the most valuable retailer in the world, and they don’t carry any inventory.
In addition, organizations headquartered in London, San Francisco, and Singapore have long enjoyed an advantage over those headquartered in smaller markets because they could recruit from a large talent pool. Now, organizations in any location can hire people anywhere.
Organizations need global leaders who move from seeing the digital marketplace and workforce from a scarcity mindset to seeing it as an opportunity for scalable solutions. It takes a very different skill set to build a compelling organizational culture among people who rarely see each other than it does when doing so with a group who gather in the same room for a town hall meeting. And an entirely different business model may be needed when moving from selling products in brick and mortar or delivering services in-person to doing so virtually. But for the organizations with global leaders who can figure it out, there are enormous opportunities.
There are many more reasons why organizations need global leaders, including the need to build trust across a remote, distributed team, an ability to negotiate with suppliers who have different driving values, the skill to give a presentation remotely in a way that’s inspiring and engaging, and the list keeps going.
There’s no indication that the disruptive, diverse, digital leadership terrain is going away. Many of the leaders who built today’s organizations used skills that have little application to today’s world. But as organizations develop global leaders who can lead anyone, anywhere, they will not only survive this new world, they’ll thrive in it.
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