What does it take to be a global leader?

What does it take to be a global leader?

At the recent NAGCAS conference, Right Management EVP Bridget Beattie spoke about the shift towards a ‘human age’, where human potential is the key driver of productivity and innovation, and provides a point of difference leading to business success. A key part of individual success in the ‘human age’ is the ability to connect with others between organisations, across cultural boundaries, and irrespective of location. The human age requires global leadership, which can be defined as the “process of influencing others from multiple cultures to adopt a shared vision through structures and methods that facilitate positive change while fostering individual and collective growth in a context characterised by significant levels of complexity, flow and presence (Osland, Li & Wang 2014, 5).

What does it take to be a global leader?

There are a number of research studies which identify leadership qualities, behaviours and competencies based on survey studies with individuals from around the world. The GLOBE study conducted by House et al (Global Leaership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness research program) investigated individual expectations of leaders on a broad scale, linking them with cultural values and practices. The GLOBE study identified the following leadership qualities as the most universally desirable: leaders who have integrity, and are inspirational, visionary, performance-oriented and decisive.

study by Tucker International and Right Management identifies six competencies required for global leadership success:

  • Adapting socially – “the leader’s ability to socialise comfortably with new people in unfamiliar social situations and to demonstrate genuine interest in other people”
  • Demonstrating creativity – “a leader’s ability to enjoy new challenges, strive for innovative solutions to social and situational issues, and learn from a variety of sources”
  • Even disposition – “a leader’s ability to remain calm, not be critical of him/herself, and learn from mistakes”
  • Respecting beliefs – “a leader’s ability to demonstrate respect for the political and spiritual beliefs of people in other cultures”
  • Instilling trust – “a leader’s ability to build and maintain trusting relationships”
  • Navigating ambiguity – “a leader’s ability to see through vagueness and uncertainty, not become frustrated, and figure out how things are done in other cultures” (Leading Across Cultures in the Human Age 2012)

These qualities are similar to those identified by Lange in a study of university students, which found that “inquisitiveness was the only cognitive competency found to successfully predict global leadership effectiveness” (2015, iv). This is in part a result of the fact that inquisitiveness indicates cognitive flexibility, and enables individuals to adapt to the situation at hand.

Inquisitiveness is important, as “global leadership requires operating with ambiguity and complexity, and demands specific behaviours and competencies to be successful”

There are many sources for identifying global leadership competencies, each with varying results. Being inquisitive about global leadership competencies lead me to a number of academic and non-academic sources, each using different measures to identify which competencies or characteristics are determined as ideal for global leadership. A study by Kim and McLean analysed a number of different academic frameworks in this area, combining existing studies to develop an integrative framework for global leadership competency. This framework can act as a guide for developing global leadership competency models specific to individual organisations, helping HR practitioners to build global leadership competency models which align with company strategy and objectives.

To “evolve into a successful global company, the HR functions should take major roles to select, develop, deploy and reward excellent global leaders” (Kim & McLean 2015, 255).

At the individual level, it is still hard to know which competencies to develop to be a successful global leader. It is important that individuals embody leadership styles which align to the situation at hand, and many qualities and competencies listed above are not exclusive to ‘global’ situations. The world of work is changing, and leadership within organisations needs to embrace the fact that work is now diverse, ambiguous, and globally interconnected. As such, the leadership competencies required for a global leader in one organisation will differ significantly from that of global leaders in other companies.

So what does it take to be a global leader? To answer that I’ll use a well-used academic phrase: it depends!



Kim, J., McLean, G.L., (2015), ‘An integrative framework for global leadership competency: levels and dimensions’, in Human Resource Development International. Vol. 18, No.3, pp. 235-258

House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W. & Gupta, V., (2004), Culture, Leadership and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Sage Publications, California.

Lange, S., (2015), ‘Global Leadership Effectiveness: The Predictive Value of Cognitively Oriented Global Leadership Competencies

Leading Across Cultures in the Human Age (2012), Right Management and Tucker International.

Osland, J. S., Li, M., & Wang, Y. (Eds). (2014). Advances in global leadership (Vol. 8). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

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