Global Leadership: Inner Talent or Learned Skill?

images-28When I recently looked into publications on global leadership and talent management, my attention was caught by two different articles, which surely would make for a heated discussion if put together. On one hand is a recent blog entry by David Livermore, who emphasizes that global leadership is not based on natural qualities or dispositions, as it needs some deliberate acquisition of specific skills, such as cultural intelligence. On the other hand, an interesting article in Forbes argues that global leadership could naturally result from our innate social skills, and that ‘managing talent is really not that hard’.

Hence, a thought-provoking question: ‘Is global leadership a matter of using the social skills that people already have, or is it a matter of deliberate skill and knowledge development?

According to the Forbes article, the author is implying that our innate social skills are a sufficient resource for interacting, influencing and engaging others, which in turn are the actions needed to effectively manage talent. Moreover, it is posited that high performers do not need to be motivated, as self-motivation is another inherent resource we have, and the degree of communication is the main source for managing effectively in most situations. As such, communicating sufficiently, showing empathy towards the feelings of others, and being able to read the mood of your subordinates goes a long way to being a pretty good leader already. And if something still does not work, maybe the people you hired are not the right ones? In essence, we all have what it takes to be great leaders in today’s globalized world, as all we have to do is follow our natural skills and gut feeling?

As appealing as such ideas might appear, I think that they are also quite easily challenged. If effective communication and connection to other people would be such a natural thing for people, we would not have so many examples of ineffective leadership. However, maybe the question is not so much about the nature of leadership qualities, but rather in the sufficiency of these qualities for global leadership? A related problem has to do with the fact that the term ‘global leadership’ is used so widely that it is not clear what global leadership actually is – and how it is different from domestic leadership. This is a topic I have done research on (Mendenhall, Reiche, Bird, & Osland, 2012) and discussed in a previous blog entry before.

As David Livermore puts it, leadership cannot be considered a sixth sense or a ‘gut’ feeling because ‘gut’ feelings are built from our experiences, which are certainly not universally relevant across the globe. As such, what feels right in Western European may fail to work in Asia, and visa versa.

Moreover, I would disagree with the tenet of communication as a main solution strategy. Naturally, we all communicate on a daily basis and inevitably learn it from our childhood onwards through our social environment. However, I would differentiate the natural skill of communication from the acquired skill of effective communication. The latter implies not only sending and receiving messages, but also making sure that these messages are well understood and serve the purpose of communication. Here, I relate with David Livermore’s point that effective leadership is based also on reflecting the followers’ expectations of leaders. Again, these expectations are situation-, culture- and person-specific: all of which makes the tenet that our innate social skills are flexible and automatically adjustable, quite questionable. As such, I think global leadership is not about how much one communicates, but rather what is the content and form of communication.

All in all, however, I don’t want to restrict this to a ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate, and support just one of the two standpoints. Naturally, there are some inner characteristics and predispositions (e.g., extraversion-introversion) that make one more likely to become a good global leader. However, without hard work and deliberate honing of one’s leadership skills this natural talent and the inherent social skills are unlikely to lead towards successful global leadership.


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.

One thought on “Global Leadership: Inner Talent or Learned Skill?

  1. Leadership comes by nature and skills develop over the time. I am a enrolled in an online course for business administration at Payne Springs University and I have been covering a number of informative leadership blogs since a couple of weeks for my assignment. In my opinion acquisition of specific skills is something that can be easily earned by focusing on to it, but developing leadership skills is far much difficult.

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