Five Global Leadership Factors


October 13, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

In today’s complex global business environment, no single model of leadership fits the broad range of situations that leaders encounter daily. However, there are certain qualities of leadership that were important 100 years ago and will still be important 1,000 years from today. Elements such as demonstrating integrity, leading by example, creating a vision, motivating people, developing talent, ensuring customer satisfaction, and maintaining a competitive advantage were important in the past and will be important as long as businesses exist.

What are some of the emerging trends of global leaders? A few years ago, my co-authors—Cathy Greenberg, Alastair Robertson, and Maya Hu-Chan—and I did a research study that asked 200 high-potential managers from organizations around the world how leadership has changed and is changing. We published the results of our study in Global Leadership: The Next Generation (FT Press, 2003).

We found five factors that differentiate the leader of the future from the leader of the past:

1. Thinking globally

Historically, the vast majority of leaders focused on local or domestic issues. Later, businesses began to turn into suppliers and customers of organizations from other counties. In the future, leaders will have to be much more aware of the impact of globalization on all aspects of their business.

2. Appreciating cross-cultural diversity

In the U.S. 100 years ago, there was little diversity in leadership. Almost all business organizations were run by white, male Americans. In the recent past, “diversity” has been a term that Americans used to describe relationships with women and minorities in the U.S. In the future, cross-cultural diversity will mean an appreciation of differences that span religions, cultures, and peoples around the globe.

3. Developing technological savvy

While leaders have always had to understand their businesses’ own core technologies, they have not had to understand the larger impact that those technologies had on society and their customers. In the future, leaders will not all need to be “technologists,” but they will have to understand the impact that new technology has on their businesses, their customers, and their world.

4. Developing alliances and partnerships

IBM (IBM) is a great case study of the “past vs. future” in building relationships. In the “old days,” IBM had almost no partnerships or alliances. It was very proud that it internally produced its products and services. Today, IBM forms alliances and partnerships every week. The leaders of the future will not just run linear organizations. They will manage complex sets of relationships from around the world.

5. Sharing leadership

As Peter Drucker noted: “The leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future will know how to ask.” More and more leaders of the future will manage knowledge workers. These are employees who know more about their work than their bosses do. It is hard to tell people what to do and how to do it when they know more than we do. Leadership in the future will involve more two-way involvement and sharing—and less one-way direction.