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The Stories of Global Leaders

Leaders are not created by organizations. Leaders are created in families, education systems, and communities and later on, developed further by organizations.

That is what INSEAD understood and applied in their selection process. When I applied for my master’s degree, I was surprised by the difficulty of the application and selection process. On many levels, it was more difficult than the selection process for a senior leadership role. Technical skills were treated with high consideration, but the life and career history of the applicant took center stage. This history was explored through a multicultural and global lens: the number of countries we lived in, the number of cultures we worked with, our experience and appreciation for cross-cultural environments, and the challenging crossroads in our careers.

We are now a cohort of 22 people from 13 nationalities worldwide, balanced gender-wise. What makes it humbling is recognizing we are all a minority. The diverse cultures in the group accelerate our learning and challenge our existing beliefs. In this group, I see most how the diversity of backgrounds, thoughts, and gender comes into play in a group dynamic.

The same aspects come into play in global businesses. I wrote recently about my insights on how national cultures influence global business dynamics. While I did see these forces at the surface in business, I was only able to gain a deep understanding when looking into the profound ways in which hierarchy, power, communication, collaboration, performance, and styles of decision-making are a reflection of national cultures.

Beyond these all, culture has serious implications for leadership profiles. A good leader in one culture does not make a competent leader in another. Plus, a good leader in one country does not make a global leader.

So then, what makes a successful global leader? How do people become global leaders?

Professor Manfred Kets de Vries, one of the world’s leading thinkers in leadership, has identified in The Leadership Mystique the following abilities and characteristics of global leaders:

  • Charismatic qualities

  • Team building skills

  • An openness to change

  • An interest in the socioeconomic and political life of other countries

  • An ability to relate well to people from other cultures

  • Effective nonverbal communication skills

  • Understanding how cultural differences affect the way people function

  • Willingness and attempt to hear different viewpoints

  • A desire to travel, learn new things, and try varied cuisines

  • A sense of ease in culturally ambiguous situations

  • The ability and enjoy working in multicultural teams

  • The willingness to take risks when the potential for payoff is high

  • A high tolerance for frustration and ambiguity

  • Adaptability to new situations

  • Having a perception of control over one’s life

  • A sense of humour

And while these abilities and characteristics are developed within organisations, they are built throughout people’s lives in contexts unrelated to global business. Leadership direction is influenced by the early context of life.

Therefore, we are developing our global leadership even before we enter into businesses and refining it throughout our professional lives. Factors that contribute to global leadership abilities are:

1. Family & community influences shape the foundation of global leaders. Without this fertile foundation, later leadership training in organisations can be of limited use. For global leadership abilities to develop, growing up in a trusting, egalitarian environment is critical. Being exposed to cultural diversity, early international experiences, and focusing on taking control of our lives, together with cross-cultural programs, all create a positive internal image of global exposure. This internal image will be a stabiliser later on in the experiences of global leaders.

2. Education and work experience build the next layer of the global leadership foundation. An international program like an MBA or on-the-job training builds a cross-cultural mindset. Working on global projects and taking over responsibility and leadership makes it easier to deal with complex global challenges later in leadership.

3. Corporate cultures. Organisations with a truly multinational mindset have multinational boards, mixed nationality teams, mentors with global expertise, as well as cohesive and diverse communities. These organisations have a culture that shares common values and beliefs and transcends individual differences.

Understanding in depth the contexts that shape global leaders is essential for any organisation that wants to select the right candidates for global leadership. Looking at the person holistically, through the lenses of their lives and careers, maximises the chances of identifying the most suitable candidates. With a long-term investment in developing their leadership potential, organisations gain a competitive edge through their leaders.

Similarly, people with global leadership potential and ambitions can make, based on these insights, informed choices. They can choose careers, organisations, and environments that will accelerate their growth. Later on, they can use their experience as inspiration to grow into future global leaders.

If you recognise this to be your story, have your back. You’re on a path to global leadership.


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