Developing the Global Leader

The shift from a country-centric company to one more global in its outlook will have a radical impact on leadership development, says Professor of Management Practice William George.
by Julia Hanna

What skills do today's executives need to develop to become effective global leaders of tomorrow? And how do corporations teach these skills to their own leaders?

"The shift from a country-centric corporation to one that is more global in its outlook will have a radical impact on leadership development," says Professor of Management Practice William George, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic.

“We're looking to companies to create a global cadre of people who are comfortable operating anywhere in the world.”

George developed and taught for many years the popular second-year MBA course Authentic Leadership Development (ALD), which he has compressed into a five-day Executive Education program at Harvard Business School.

"The most successful leaders will not necessarily be those with the highest IQ," he says. "Of course, they will need to be intelligent. But they'll also need to have a high level of cultural and emotional intelligence."

According to George, additional characteristics of a successful global leader include:

  • An intellectual understanding of the global business context—in other words, an ability to comprehend just how complex it can be to do business around the world.
  • The capacity to simultaneously develop a global and local perspective. "This is much easier said than done," George says. "And it's almost impossible to achieve without a great deal of experience living in different parts of the world."
  • Being able to overcome the dominant thinking at headquarters. "Leadership has to lean in favor of nondominant thinking," says George. "That requires a tremendous amount of intercultural empathy and a passion for diversity in life experiences." In other words: "An insatiable need to learn about other cultures."
  • A knack for cross-boundary partnering. "You need to feel comfortable engaging a team in India and giving them as much power as a team in Germany or the United States. There's a certain level of executive leadership maturity involved in having the respect and capacity to pull the best out of each area of the corporation."
  • A self-awareness and self-assurance when it comes to one's values and sense of purpose. At the same time, however, "you need to be flexible in learning from and empowering others."
  • The ability to develop networks that are internal and external to the organization. "It's a process of shifting from vertical management to horizontal collaboration. One's title and role are far less important than the capacity to get things done."

How should one cultivate these qualities? One of George's first recommendations for would-be global leaders is to live in a country where the language spoken is different from that in one's home country.

"When my wife and I lived in Japan we had a two-year-old child, which meant we had to dive in and learn very quickly," he recalls. "Doing this gives you a heightened sensitivity to cultural differences, and how those differences are tied up in language."

After 60 or so hours of Japanese language instruction, George could more or less carry on a conversation, and did so with a retired chairman of Mitsubishi—who gently informed him that he was speaking "female Japanese."

Get Lost

"These are great learning experiences," he says. "The first weekend after I had moved to Belgium, I asked someone how I should explore and get to know the place. I was told to go get lost, which is great advice. It's about really engaging in the culture and learning to be vulnerable."

Accepting one's vulnerabilities is a primary objective of ALD, which requires participants to work together in six-person groups.

"It's more than a knowledge transfer from HBS to individuals; it's also an exchange between people and a process of understanding who I am, what I desire, what is my purpose, and what are my values," says George, who notes that this year the number of participants who can enroll in ALD has doubled to 240 people.

Also coming next July is The Global Enterprise Leader, a course developed with Professor Krishna Palepu that will extend ALD's objectives to include cultivating a greater capacity for cultural intelligence. "It's not so much about understanding geopolitics," George says. "The characteristics that I've cited above are far more important."

Aligning employees across a diversity of geographies and experiences is easier said than done, George concedes, although he does highlight a few standouts, including Coca-Cola (which has had five non-American CEOs), Nestlé, Unilever, Siemens, IBM, and Novartis, among others.

"Ultimately, a global organization is measured by how well the diversity of its leadership reflects the diversity of its customer base and how well that leadership can leverage the skills of teams working around the world," he says, adding that Medtronic's CEO is Omar Ishrak, a native of Bangladesh who was educated in London and has worked in the United States for nearly 20 years.

"We're looking to companies to create a global cadre of people who are comfortable operating anywhere in the world," George concludes. "That's where we're heading."

About the Author

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.
    • Aburizal Hasyim
    • Bogor,Indonesian, Sampoerna Academy
    If we want to create such as global leader, it's a must that every country support each other to make kind of leader like that. But, in the real world, it's hard to do because there is some country that prevent development like that.
    • Jaslin
    • Cashier, Wal-Mart
    i love this article it is very good keep up the great work love you
    • Valerie Oben
    • President, Foxboro Consulting
    David Novak, CEO of YUM! brands, plunged into global growth transforming the bottom-line so that 75% of profits now come from outside the US versus 20 percent in 1997. The firm is one of a handful of U.S. companies that have taken China by storm, in its case he says by leveraging brand expertise. He emphasized two of Prof. George's tenets; in Novak's words "Grow Yourself" and "Make Culture a Hero" - Was he overlooked by Professor George?
    He'll be speaking at CEO2CEO Leadership Summit on how every company can prepare to thrive in a global world
    • Anonymous
    Cultivating a gloabl leader is more than the understanding of different culture and language spoken. More important than anything, it is the shared value among the leaders given the premises that if we can forgo some of the benefits derived from doing business to our partners, a 30/70 shared benefits, figurataively speaking, we can foster a life long relationshp.
    • Jeff Johnson
    • Quality Manager, Optum Helath
    Great article! This is great example of why leadership skills developed in the Armed Forces are so valuable to corporate America. Our officers and NCOs that have serviced in developed and undeveloped countries all over the world have a full understanding of the complexities of logistics and operations overseas.
    Jeff Johnson, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired), US Army
    • Andrew Malele
    • IT Systems Manager, Tsogo Sun
    I liked the Get Lost idea. When I first went to Hong Kong and then China, my experience though me to learn the basics about the verbal language and body language and with that your approach to different cultures and age groups is made easy. Great topic.
    • Tom Verghese
    • Director, Cultural Synergies
    It is a given that effective global leaders need high IQ, EQ and MQ (Managerial Intelligence)...the additional component is CQ (Cultural Intelligence) which is the ability to interact successfully with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. This then requires 'mindfulness', cultural adaptability, behavioral flexibility and energy....all developed by actually doing assignments in different international locations.
    • Geetanjali Choori
    • CEO, Energy Guru
    Very well summarized characteristics of a successful global leader, while having good IQ, EQ & SQ.
    • Dr.G.P.Rao.
    • Founder Chairman, Spandan, India.
    Similar are the experiences and insights I have had in my endeavors of inculcating human values in work situations. Of the 26 Transactional human values, the following six are identified as globally-induced values important in developing work ethic conducive for a Functionally Humane Organisation:
    - Competitive Spirit
    - Creativity - Innovation.
    - Cultural adaptiveness - Cross cultural management.
    - Entrepreneurship - Risk taking;
    - Hospitable Disposition (Marwar culture)
    - Preparedness - Pro-activeness -
    Environment sensitivity.
    • Natrajh Ramakrishna
    • Country Head AUdit, KPMG
    Brilliant article and a key aspect in the development of global leaders. I agree that one of the most critical skills is the understanding and acceptability of diverse cultures and diversity in general. Emerging top performers should ideally, be sent on global leadership programs that are designed on the lines described by the learned author because accpeting other cultures is, unfortunately, not part of typical academic curriculums!
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    A global leader is one who has qualities of head and heart to easily get going with the culture, habits, temperaments, fads and foibles of the corner of the world where he has to operate. Learning the local language would give lot of professional and personal satisfaction as this eases the living overall.
    Besides the above, a good global leader carries his knowledge and experience without forcing his attitudes on the local environment. He needs to appear just as a local but with a broad outlook so that the best practices prevailing elsewhere are slowly and steadily introduced for leading to improvements.
    The global leader may be proud of his ancestry but must never look down upon, directly or indirectly, on the way locals act and behave. Passing undesirable comments and reflecting unbecoming working style will do more harm than good.
    • Dr.Nada almutawa
    • Researcher, kuwait university
    vaer intresting article , i think the role of building networks is important , as it is becoming the new form of soft power.
    as Globalization is the flow of trade capital and people across the globe , facilitated by different kinds of infrastructure , as well as forms of interconnectedness ,an important form of interconnectedness lies within the formation of networks of all types , global regional and local business networks are flourishing and becoming a hub for entrepreneurs in Kuwait .
    therefore exploring Economic Networks in the Arab World is important , one useful lesson learned is the implementation of privatization programs , and whether the actors and agency fit into traditional political economic categories.

    Dr Nada S. Al Mutawa - Kuwait University
    • Martha
    • Ware
    Very interesting article. I believe that global leaders must be "globally open minded", meaning, one has to understand, respect, learn, and live the global differences like culture, ethnic diversity, geographic particularities and values. As Mr. George says, intelligence is important, but it is much more than a high IQ.
    We need global leaders because more and more we have global customers.
    • Anonymous
    Good article, as all HBS, and leadership articles normally are... however, most of it of course theoretical, and how it works in the perfect world.

    Having lived in more than 10 countries, speaking 4 languages on business level, and having worked for some of the biggest to the smallest companies in the world, I can only say that I have not once seen great leadership, or, integrity which is what it really boils down to.

    I myself am a global leader, but I can't find a global company that truly supports, trusts, and understands its global leaders..

    Are there any such companies out there?
    • Cheyenne Hill
    • 9th grade, Oak hills high school
    This is a nice article and has good aspects on global leaders.