Global Leadership: It is all about complexity

“We cannot solve today’s problems with the same thinking OR LEADERSHIP that we used when we created them” Einstein+

Last week I attended Joyce Osland’s very insightful workshop on Global Leadership at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC). In today’s globalized world, we need more global leaders who can deal with the increasing complexity of the business world. 79% of CEOs expect a high or very high complexity for the next 5 years, yet only 49% feel prepared for this expected complexity (1). So what are global leaders and how can we develop them?

Global leadership as extreme sport

One of the main challenges for globaExtreme sportsl leaders comes from the global context of their work. This context is highly complex because of the large variety of factors that play a role (languages, cultures, institutions) and the high interdependence of everything. Also, not everything is clear cut in a global context: something can have multiple meanings which can lead you to make the wrong assumptions. And finally, everything is constantly changing. These four factors (multiplicity, interdependence, ambiguity and flux) make up the global complexity a global leader has to deal with (2). I liked the parallel Osland drew with extreme sports to illustrate the difference between domestic leaders and global leaders: ‘Simply said, global leadership is ‘extreme leadership’. You are pushed to the edge.’

Should you buy or make global leaders?

Reed college (1)
Reed College, where SIIC took place

Are global leaders born that way or can they be developed? The answer is a mix of both (3). There are certain individual characteristics such as openness to other cultures which help someone to develop global leadership skills, but these are relatively stable so it makes sense to select individuals who score high on such personality traits. Other more dynamic cross-cultural competencies can be developed, although the individual needs to be willing to learn and acquire new knowledge and skills. Developmental readiness is key.

How can we develop global leaders?

“The primary objective of global leadership training is stretching someone’s mind past narrow domestic borders and creating a mental map of the entire world” (4)

Global leadership development is a process of personal transformation that takes time. It is best accomplished through experiential learning, reflection, and multi-method designs. While in the end it is up to the individual to learn from the opportunities that are offered, an organization can help in various ways, for example through offering international business travel, international project teams, international service learning assignments, or expatriate assignments. An expat assignment is often said to be the best way to develop global leaders – as long as they engage with the culture because “just being there is no guarantee of growth’ (5). This emphasizes the importance of getting in touch with locals – both at work and outside of work – and not stay within the ‘expat bubble’.

Global leadership is still a young field and there is still much to learn. Are you a global leader? Tell us about your experiences!


  • IBM (2010). Capitalizing on complexity. Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study (downloaded from
  • Mendenhall, M., Reiche, B.S., Bird, A., & Osland, J. (2012). Defining the “global” in global leadership. Journal of World Business, 47(4), 493-503
  • Caligiuri, P. & Tarique, I. (2012). Dynamic cross-cultural competencies and global leadership effectiveness. Journal of World Business, 47(4), 612-622
  • Quote by Black and Gregersen (2000) in Oddou, G. & Mendenhall, M. (2008). Global leadership development. In M. Mendenhall, J. Osland, A. Bird, G. Oddou, and M. Maznevski, ‘Global Leadership: Research, Practice, and Development’. Routledge, 160-174
  • McCall, M.W. Jr. & Hollenbeck, G.P. (2002). Developing global executives: The organisation’s role. In “Developing Global Executives”, Harvard Business School Press, p. 184

(Photo of motorbike by William N. on Flickr. Photo of Reed College by the author)


  1. […] What is a global leader? One of the interesting findings is that the Danish MNCs do not label global leaders as ‘global leaders’, defining them simply as ‘leaders’. Although these leaders function in a more international context than others, no specific leadership programs are created for them. The question is whether this goes for MNCs in other countries as well, or whether this is something specifically Danish. Ioannis suggests in his thesis that it might be related to Danish culture with its emphasis on equality. It is certainly possible that Danish MNCs are hesitant to label leaders as ‘global’, thereby setting them apart from the other leaders. Whether this is true or not, it could be a good thing anyway to develop ‘normal’ leadership programs to encompass global aspects as well, since more and more leaders are nowadays working internationally, and will need to be able to deal with this added complexity. […]

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