What is a 'global' leader?

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Jan 24 2022 by David Livermore Print This Article

Earlier this month, Albertsons' CEO, Vivek Sankaran, said that the US grocer had been struggling with low inventory for months. Just about the time he thought their supply chain issues were resolved, the Omicron spike put them back where they were six months ago.

Albertsons has no stores outside the US. So is Sankaran a global leader?

Helena Helmersson became H&M's CEO just before the pandemic. Six weeks into her role, H&M's shares fell by 50 percent and the Swedish retailer was facing huge backlash for accusing China of human rights violations.

H&M operates in 62 countries. Is Helmersson a global leader?

Tina Freese Decker is CEO of Spectrum Health, an enterprise of hospitals in Michigan that is on the cusp of merging with another $4.5 billion healthcare system on the other side of the state. Like all health care executives, Decker has been laser focused on local Covid realities.

Spectrum solely operates in Michigan. Is Decker a global leader?

'Global leadership' is one of those fancy terms that gets used in glossy consulting reports and EMBA marketing briefs but what does it actually mean? Is it anyone who leads people internationally? Can you be a global leader if your role is solely domestic?

If Covid has taught us anything, it's that we all function in a global environment. What starts as a variant in South Africa influences the lives of people in rural America and the bushlands of Australia within a matter of days.

I've worked with leaders of local organizations who approach their work globally. And I've worked with leaders at international organizations who approach their work locally.

'Global' refers to whether you lead in light of the global context. It certainly includes an ability to influence and build trust with people from Germany, Korea, or Brazil. But it applies equally to your ability to walk into a room of faculty, angel investors, or clergy, and find an ability to connect and make a good impression. It's your ability to anticipate how realities on the other side of the world shape how you need to lead here. And it's knowing how to lead a transformational, innovative, inclusive culture across a remote, distributed team.

Domestic leaders think and operate within local boundaries whereas global leaders think and operate without boundaries (global).

LEADERSHIP: Influencing others to work toward common goals.

GLOBAL LEADERSHIP: Influencing a diverse group to work toward common goals within a global context.

These are the kinds of questions I repeatedly hear from 'global' leaders:

  • How do I get my people to think and act globally? (No, Chinese New Year is NOT a good time for a sales meeting).
  • How do I resolve cross-cultural conflicts?
  • How do I build trust among diverse, remote teams?
  • How do I create a competitive, transformative organizational culture that is in inclusive?
  • How do I recruit more diverse staff?
  • How do I scale and deal with myriad demands for localization while also developing a unifying culture?
  • How do I ensure our DEI programs address global realities?
  • How do I anticipate and manage external threats (new competition, economic recession, technology breeches, supply chain issues, etc.)?
  • How do I leverage our emerging markets' insights/successes for the rest of the organization?
  • How do I address ethical dilemmas in different regions?
  • How do I inspire people who are wired so differently?
  • How do I foster critical thinking?
  • How do I get people to speak up?

Being a global leader is less about whether you're flying around the world and operating in different currencies and more about three critical factors that consistently emerge from some of the most important research on global leadership.

Increased Complexity

The more global the context, the more leaders need to navigate complexity, ambiguity, and constant flux. When the pandemic began, Spotify was the global leader in music streaming and it seemed like a business model ideally suited for life under lockdown; but Spotify's model relied on free users who listen to advertisements. A sudden recession meant advertisers slashed their budgets and Spotify's revenues plummeted.

These kinds of volatile, unforeseen disruptions are becoming more common to all of us as leaders. Fortune 500's, local real estate developers, and independent consultants all have to function in an environment characterized by volatility, ambiguity, and almost constant change. A global leader needs to move swiftly, deliberately, and thoughtfully in managing the complexity of things like infection rates, supply chain issues, labor shortages, and government mandates.


The more global the context, the more leaders need the ability to cross a variety of borders inside and outside the organization. We used to think of those borders as being marked by passport control but today, they can just as easily be the borders between liberals and conservatives sitting next to each other on your executive team. Diversity among the workforce and customers is here to stay but learning how to effectively manage the flow of information and relationships across a diverse workforce requires a different approach to leadership than a context where most everyone thinks and acts the same way.

This is of course where cultural intelligence (CQ) plays a critical role. CQ provides the skill set to manage information exchange, decision-making, social bonding, and myriad other priorities that determine the flow of communication and relationships cross a diverse community of stakeholders.


The other dimension that consistently emerges in research on global leadership is the degree to which the leader needs to influence and lead people in a variety of locations. Traditionally, this meant being present with your customers and staff in different countries but platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams changed all of that. Whether staff and clients are joining from the same zip code or from a workspace on the other side of the world, global leaders need to be present with stakeholders in multiple locations simultaneously, often at all hours of the day.

Even in a firm where everyone lives within an hour of each other, the realities of one individual's remote work environment compared to another's requires a different sensibility and presence from leadership. The variation in contexts has a dramatic effect on how individuals need to be lead. How do you create a trusting environment while also not being played by individuals who are working multiple full-time jobs or pretending to be sick when they actually just don't feel like joining today's meeting.

We're in a new leadership frontier. We're all doing 'global' work now. Whether it's attending Zoom meetings all hours of the day, anticipating how issues on the other side of the world will affect this quarter's bottom line, or building trust across a remote, distributed workforce, 'global' is the context for leaders in most any organization, whether that's H&M, Albertsons, or a local accounting firm.

A 'global' leader is somebody who is called upon to lead anyone, anywhere. Are you a 'global' leader?

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.