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Global leadership…from the inside-out

Posted on from London Business School Human Capital Network

Laura McCraken Challenges the notion of cultural determinism in leadership development, and looks into the fundamentals of leadership.

What does it take to be a global leader?

Some would say that one must be a chameleon – with the ability to change spots depending upon the environment and ‘mirror’ diverse cultural audiences. Others suggest ‘cultural training’ to learn basic social and business etiquette. We’ve all heard the classic lesson of holding business cards with both hands when presenting or receiving them in Asia. If only it were that simple. And sophisticated models exist, such as Hofstede’s Framework for Assessing Culture, which offers a way for leaders to consider cultural differences based upon five factors including:

  • Power distance
  • Individualism vs. collectivism
  • Masculinity vs. femininity
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Time horizon.

Global leadership agility model

While ‘learning’ about different cultures is indeed time well spent, a more fundamental set of leadership capabilities – developed from the inside-out – will enable a leader to effectively maneuver in an era of globalization, accelerated change, complexity, and interdependence.  Global leadership agility, as illustrated by the following model, is found at the intersection of cognitive ability, emotional intelligence, and authenticity.

Global leadership agility model references

The global leadership agility model was developed by Laura McCracken, drawing from her own international business experience across North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia, along with a few key resources including: Leadership Agility, by Bill Joiner & Stephen Josephs, Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, and The Blackwell Handbook of Global Management, by Allan Bird and Joyce Osland.


‘Agility’ implies an intentional, proactive stance, as opposed to ‘flexibility’ or ‘adaptability’, which imply a reactive or passive stance. It follows that the most respected leaders are not flexible chameleon-type individuals who change their stripes to suit any given situation, but instead hold steadfast to their core values. 

They develop their own authentic leadership style that is capable of rising above any storm. As such, ‘authenticity’ is the first, and arguably, the most important quality of a successful global leader. In existential philosophy, authenticity denotes an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life. Authentic individuals are genuine. They know who they are and have strong core values. Is it any surprise that an authentic leader might be better able to build trust?

This is not to say that the authentic leader should fail to listen to or compromise with those whose values or beliefs may be different. It simply means that compromise should come from an authentic and transparent place. In a global context, one’s values should include a desire to foster mutual understanding and respect between cultures. This desire alone will go a long way towards building a foundation of mutual respect and understanding, which will in turn help bridge actual or perceived gaps.

Global leadership traits

In addition to having a strong set of core values, a few ‘threshold traits’ should be present within a global leader:

  • Integrity

    Integrity is acting with consistency and adhering to a strict ethical code. To have integrity, one must have a strong sense of self, which will serve as an anchor for maintaining identity and balance in another culture.

  • Humility

    Humility is the willingness to learn from others and not assume one has all of the answers. The opposite of humility is arrogance – which we all know does not go over well.

  • Hardiness

    Hardiness is about robustness and emotional resilience. One must be able to bounce back from stress and see change as an opportunity. Being in good health and having a sense of humor are a couple of ways to boost one’s hardiness.

Additionally, having a strong sense of purpose, particularly one that is meaningful and long-term, will help a leader to maintain perspective and enroll others in a shared vision.  Without an overarching sense of purpose, initiatives 'get lost' in a world of competing priorities and diverse individuals are less likely to band together.

Cognitive complexity

Some mistakenly believe that cognitive complexity can be developed through increased knowledge and experience or that it is simply a function of IQ. While a certain level of knowledge is necessary, it is not sufficient. Knowledge – know who, know what, know how, know why – is a resource, not a competence.

Wikipedia describes cognitive complexity as a psychological characteristic that indicates the complexity of the frame and perceptual skill of a person. It is related to: “the number of mental structures we use, how abstract they are, and how elaborately they interact to shape our perceptions”. 

For the purposes of this article, cognitive complexity is the ability to see multiple perspectives and to consider people, ideas and situations from a variety of angles.

  • Situational awareness

    The ability to see situations within larger and larger contexts gives one the mental equivalent of a camera’s zoom lens. It allows a leader to step back from a situation, view it in a broader context, and then zoom in on the issue while keeping the broader perspective in mind.

  • Connective awareness

    Connective awareness allows a leader to hold different ideas in mind – and then to draw relevant comparisons and make meaningful connections between these ideas. In a global context, at the most sophisticated level, it enables a leader to see connections and interrelationships across the global macroeconomic, political, and social spectrum.

  • Reflective judgment

    Reflective judgement is the ability to reflect upon one’s decision making process and deeply question the underlying assumptions and motivations. This is extremely difficult for most leaders, but is especially important when working across different cultures. Global leaders need to be able to see ways in which their own judgement, and that of others, is shaped by situations, mental models, culture, and prejudices.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence, as opposed to cognitive capacity, is the ability to identify, assess, and manage one’s own emotions in tandem with those of others. The earliest origins of emotional intelligence rest within Darwin’s theory of the importance of emotional expression for survival and adaptation. This concept has evolved over time in various guises and was popularized by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence. In his model, he focuses on four components: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. 

While emotional intelligence is important in all aspects of life, it is particularly important when working with people across cultures. We can 'slice and dice' numerous traits in endless combinations, however the following four are particularly important for success as a global leader:

  • Self-Awareness

    Self-awareness is the product of the attention and reflection that leaders place upon their own thoughts, traits, emotions, and behaviors. The quality of this reflection drives the level of accuracy and completeness of awareness of one’s strengths and limitations as a leader. Self-awareness is elusive for many and for all to some degree, but can be enhanced by proactively observing one’s self and noticing the relationship between one’s own emotions, traits, and behaviors. This process is often facilitated by coaches and mentors and aided by 360 feedback and psychometric testing.

  • Empathy

    Empathy is the ability to share and understand another’s emotions and feelings. It means being able to 'put oneself into another’s shoes'. Empathy becomes increasingly difficult as the 'distance' increases between one’s own and another’s culture, status, age, gender, situation, etc. As such, empathy requires conscious effort to listen to and comprehend another’s story. And when working across countries, leaders should develop a basic understanding of the culture as well as the social-economic situation to increase their ability to understand and empathize.

  • Curiosity

    Curiosity is the desire to investigate and pursue knowledge about other cultures, lives, and business. For leaders driven by a sense of deep curiosity, life is a dynamic adventure. Exploration and discovery are key motivational drivers. Being curious and inquisitive will also help to enhance one’s ability to empathize.

  • Stakeholder understanding

    We often speak of ‘stakeholder management’ as the ability to create alignment and achieve buy-in from key stakeholders for a particular initiative. However, it is only through the development of ‘stakeholder understanding’ that one can be successful in this realm. First, one must identify all of the key stakeholders and consider their motivations as well as the contexts in which they are operating. This requires empathy, curiosity, and diligence.

Applies to all, but essential to leaders

Having read this, you may be thinking the above prescription applies to all individuals to operate effectively in business and in life. And you are right. Having said that, the level of importance of developing and mastering the above capabilities becomes even greater with the increased level of complexity and ambiguity of operating in a global environment.

About the Human Capital Network

The Human Capital Network was established by the London Business School Alumni Human Capital Club as a discussion forum that promotes open debate on the cutting-edge issues in strategic organisational change and talent management. We publish our research on organisational development and change on Changeboard, provide an online discussion platform on our blog and run the Organisational Development Speaker Series at London Business School.

Our distinguished speakers provide perspectives from industry, management consultancy, academia, and trade bodies. Through the presentation of best practice case studies, new research and group discussion, our three interactive panels will help you identify and tackle the key Challenges of organisational change. 

The Human Capital Network’s events are designed for senior OD and change practitioners and attract LBS alumni and external guests alike. Attendees of our past events represent a varied mix of industries and organisations, ranging from small entrepreneurial innovators to FTSE 250 blue chips, greatly contributing to the quality of panel interaction and the after-panel networking.

The past events of the Organisational Development Speaker Series covered such topics as the Future of Work, Employee Engagement Strategies and Change-Ready Organisational Cultures.
The next event on Organisational Effectiveness will be held in November 2010. Please, contact Oxana Popkova on for further details.

About Oxana Popkova

Oxana is a principal with Molten Group in London and a chair of the LBS Human Capital Network. Oxana and her team advises companies on best practices in organisational effectiveness, talent management and leadership development. Oxana completed her MBA at London Business School. Contact:
London Business School Human Capital Network

London Business School Human Capital Network

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