Defining the ‘‘global’’ in global leadership

Global leadership is the buzzword of the 21st century: business news don’t go without a column on how to lead global markets; talent development professionals focus on enhancing global leadership skills; and organizations keep looking for executives with a global leadership mindset. Over the past two decades, the academic world has also examined the phenomenon, specifically trying to understand what the necessary attributes of global leadership are. Despite the growing attention brought to the topic and several scientific contributions made to understanding it, there is no common conception of what we mean when we say ‘global’. Reviewing the global leadership literature with my colleagues (Mendenhall, Reiche, Bird & Osland, 2012), we have noticed that although there is a plethora of definitions available, few attempts have been made to unify them. Hence, our intent was to fill this gap and we came up with a conceptual model of ‘global’.

A conceptual framework of ‘global’

As mentioned above, we found that there is confusion about the boundaries of global leadership, which is largely due to a lack of clear consensus on what global means. To provide more clarity, our research (Mendenhall, Reiche, Bird & Osland, 2012) suggests three main dimensions that address and structure the elements of the construct:

  • Complexity, referring to the contextual aspect of global activity, is the first dimension. Indeed, both scholars and practitioners agree that global business activities are characterized by increased complexity. This complexity arises from operating in multiple geographical markets, engaging in multifunctional activities (e.g. multiple product lines), and dealing with heterogeneity in terms of different businesses, countries (cultures, legislations), and tasks. In other words, compared to domestic leaders, global leaders should function in many different contexts, hence they should be prepared to think, act and communicate differently based on a situation. Therefore, complexity is determined by the environment in which global leaders should operate and live.
  • Another common variable of being global comes from the assumption that global leaders have to cross a variety of boundaries, both within and outside the organization. To name a few, these boundaries can be seen to exist between cultural, linguistic, religious, educational, political and legal systems. Given these multiple boundaries, it is important to create linkages that enable the flow of essential knowledge and information across them. Hence, flow is the label for our boundary-spanning dimension of the globalconstruct, and it refers to information exchange through multiple and various types of channels between actors and across boundaries. We argue that a higher degree of flow requirements reflect global leadership activities. Moreover, we propose to assess the degrees of flow based on richness and quantity of flow. Specifically, the frequency, volume and scope of information flows indicate their richness, whereas quantity refers to the magnitude or number of channels used to proactively boundary span in the role of a global leader.
  • Finally, a third defining dimension of the global construct is termed presence. It reflects the spatial-temporal dimension, and indicates the degree to which an individual is required to physically move across geographical, cultural, and national boundaries, and not just communicate across them via virtual technologies. In other words, it is the amount of actual physical relocation.

Managerial implications

Our paper entails several managerial implications. Specifically, the introduced framework can be used to direct and design global leadership development programs. As the framework suggests, global leadership positions mean functioning in complex situations, engaging in high amounts of boundary spanning activities, and managing physical relocations. Hence, programs of global leadership should:

  • Expose participants to complex situations (e.g. cross-country projects, dealing with different stakeholders, managing culturally diverse teams)
  • Promote boundary spanning activities (e.g. rotational assignments for establishing and maintaining social relationships with actors in different contexts)
  • Provide relocation experiences (e.g. different forms of international assignments).

Finally, it is important to understand that the scope of the ‘global’ dimension may not necessarily be the same for all staff. For example, the complexity of the task environment may be greater for an inpatriate that is transferred from a small foreign subsidiary into a multinational’s headquarters than for a parent-country national being sent to a small sales subsidiary abroad. This is why different parts of an organization will need to collaborate more closely in the design of global leadership development programs to ensure that their talent obtains similar developmental experiences.


Further reading: 

Mendenhall, M.E., Reiche, B.S., Bird, A., & Osland, J.S. (2012). Defining the ‘global’ in global leadership. Journal of World Business, 47(4): 493-503.

Reiche, B.S., Mendenhall, M.E., Bird, A., & Osland, J.S. (2013). What is Global Leadership? The World Financial review (online).

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