The vice chairman of one of the largest Fortune 100 companies in the world was recently speaking to a group of Asian executives in Singapore. The North American chair spent half his keynote telling the audience how much he loved Asia. He said things like, “I spend 200+ days a year here…I love the food. I just can’t get enough of this place. Asia is the future! I want to be here as much as possible.”
The mostly Asian audience seemed to appreciate the enthusiasm for their part of the world. But during the question and answer period that followed, the audience began asking some follow-up questions:
“So what are you changing about your business strategy given your interest in Asia?” The executive looked a little bit like a deer staring into the headlights and he gave some nondescript answers about working on some focus groups to determine that.
And then someone else asked who on the company’s board is from Asia, to which he said, “Well, we meet quarterly so it’s not realistic to fly them to the U.S. that often” And when they asked him what challenges he’s faced in leading people in Asia, he again had nothing of substance to say.
This North American executive was a very articulate speaker. He had a likable personality, impressive leadership portfolio, and he exuded charisma. But his enthusiasm and charm didn’t work with this Asian audience. And when the questions started coming, he was caught blindsided.
There are a number of myths that permeate discussions about global leadership. I’ll share a few and would love to hear some that you’ve observed.
1. Leadership is a Sixth Sense
Conventional wisdom among many business executives is that leadership is a sixth sense: You either get it or you don’t. You have to lead from the gut. And frankly, there’s some research that backs up the surprising strength of seasoned executives using their gut more than data or detailed analysis to make decisions. That’s because the “gut” has been subconsciously programmed through years of experience. The problem is, the subconscious programming is specific to a culture and may not be a reliable source when making split judgments and decisions in an unfamiliar culture.
2. The World is Flat
I respect Friedman’s compelling argument that the economic playing field has been leveled globally. A Filipino start-up firm can go head-to-head with a behemoth multinational company. But I often hear people applying this idea more broadly when they ask me. “Isn’t there a global professional culture emerging where people are more alike today than different?”
When you observe people in airport lounges in Dubai, Sydney, and London it certainly seems like this is true. But when you get beneath the surface, you find we’re still more remarkably different than similar. Leaders have their head in the sand if they think they can lead people the same way everywhere. You have to account for culture as one of the significant variables that effects negotiation, building trust, fostering innovation, etc.
3. If No One Follows, You Aren’t Leading
Surely a “leader” with no followers might not be leading. Or … they might be attempting to lead in the wrong context. Leadership is not only about the values and style of the leader. It’s also about the values and preferences of the followers. Some followers want larger-than-life, charismatic, leaders like Bill Clinton. Others want modest, understated, practical leaders like Angela Merkel.
Some leaders with a massive following in one context may find no one follows them in another. Why? Because implicit leadership theory explains that whether you lead effectively is not only based upon your leadership skills; it’s also a reflection of your followers’ expectations of leaders. And culture is one of the variables that shapes what people expect and want from a leader.
4. Matrix models are better suited for leading across borders
Many companies are moving a way from headquarter-centric models of leadership to matrix models. Reporting lines go multiple directions, teams are co-located, and decision-making is more collaborative than top-down. But most of the world prefers a more hierarchical style of leadership where authority lines are clear and where followers are given clear, specific directions. There’s great potential in matrix models for international growth and expansion. But it requires an additional level of cultural intelligence to use matrix models effectively in various places around the world.
Global leadership itself is not a myth. It is possible to lead effectively across multiple cultures. This is the very thing we’ve been studying in our research on cultural intelligence across the last fifteen years. We have growing evidence that a leader’s cultural intelligence predicts several important leadership outcomes. Effectively leading across various cultures is a capability that can be measured and improved. But it begins with a more thoughtful, situational understanding of leadership.
What do you think? What would you challenge from my list? What myths would you add?
 Personal conversation with Guido Gianasso, http://guidogianasso.wordpress.com/