What Makes a Successful Global Leader?

Rich_GriffithAll business is now influenced by globalization, yet organizations have been slow to benefit from its opportunities because they lack employees skilled to lead global initiatives. Global leaders must overcome distance. They must adapt to the followers they lead, maintain their authenticity and be able to take that show on the road. These skills differ from those of domestic leaders. Global success requires four critical leadership competencies:

Relationship Orientation—In the U.S. leaders often emerge because of their technical proficiency. But in much of the rest of the world, it isn’t what you know, but rather who you know and who knows you that determines success. Trust is based on close relationships, and people will only do business with those they trust. Trust takes time. You can’t rush business abroad.

Humility—To be successful in a new cultural context, you must assume you know nothing. Effective global leaders question their own assumptions prior to speaking and acting. Rather than operate on what has worked before, capitalize on new relationships, ask questions and learn from others.

Flexibility—Effective leaders must be able to shift their style according to the expectations of their followers. Many leadership qualities are universal, but as many as 1/3 of leadership competencies vary widely across cultures. Rigid thinking and inflexibility are the marks of doom for a global leader.

Balance—There is no home team any more. We all play on a neutral field. Today’s leaders must be able to read when to adapt and when to assert, when to push and when to pull. Once your team trusts you, there are times when you can ask them to adapt and try things your way.

In summary, we need more global leaders, and we need them now. Global leadership competencies differ from domestic leadership and must be developed through different experiences. As you review your next strategic plan, ask yourself whether you are developing your talent to lead in the global economy or simply to follow.


Richard Griffith, professor of industrial/organizational psychology, is the executive director of the Institute for Cross Cultural Management at Florida Tech. He provides coaching in cross-cultural competence and global leadership.

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