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Navigating the Jungle of Global Leadership Competencies

Updated: May 6, 2022

Increasingly, global leaders must learn new approaches, assess unfamiliar situations, determine highest-priority focal points, and make decisions quickly while under extreme pressure. This article covers the essential competencies that we must cultivate to increase our global leadership capabilities–both in ourselves and in future generations.

A multitude of self-appointed subject matter experts address the questions of how to accurately observe and effectively respond as technological advancements shrink the turnaround timeframes and multicultural teaming opportunities raise the relational stakes. These are important questions, but the cacophony of voices and conflicting opinions make it difficult to boil down key elements. Recent studies on global leadership development reveal claims of over 160 crucial global leadership competencies.

There are a lot of “armchair athletes” out there promoting their conclusions as authoritative, but their vantage point and understanding is filtered. Their opinions are influenced by personal presuppositions, by once-removed hearsay from other academics, and by their own limited experience in actual global leadership roles.

Part of the dilemma is that those global leaders in the trenches who deal on a day-to-day basis with cross-border relationships, intercultural complexity, intercultural teams do not necessarily publish what they have acquired along the way.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Global leadership development on such a massive scale is a new phenomenon for everyone. It used to be that only a select handful of individuals would become leaders of the known world via birthright or conquest. Now there are tens—even hundreds of thousands of rising global leaders. There is a very real sense in which we are all a little bit lost as we seek to identify and hone the most important skills for global leadership.

160+ Competencies May Be Realistic

Although 160+ global leadership competencies may seem like an overwhelming, exaggerated number of things to tackle, a large number may be more realistic for this field than in any other competency-development field to date.

When you take a good hard look at the history of considering competencies you could argue that global leadership, as a subset of leadership in general, has more competencies entwined with it than any other form of leadership.

Three Meta-Competencies Are The Starting Point

To pinpoint and develop the paramount global leadership capabilities we need to study and develop three meta-competencies. These form the starting point for navigating the wilderness of global leadership possibilities:

  • Meta-competency #1: Master fear in order to operate freely. Fear is real and fear is natural, but we need to learn to control it if we are to maximize effectiveness in the moment. Secondary skills to develop in support of controlling fear include owning it, being present in the moment, and separating historical precedence from current reality. Leaders should view each situation in light of known factors, but also grasp apparent contradictions and acknowledge that each independent scenario may be its own special deal. Courageous steadfastness, perseverance in the face of adversity, and flexibility are all attributes that enable mastery of fear. Especially if you struggle with anxiety or uncertainty about what you cannot know for sure—it is both possible and crucial to learn how to live in, and in spite of, ambiguous circumstances. If you are able to gain and maintain a holistic, balanced outlook—remembering the bigger picture, reframing the current scariness or unfamiliarity appropriately within that larger, more complete framework—it helps in compartmentalizing and subduing that fear so that you (and the intercultural team you lead) can move forward into action.

  • Meta-competency #2: See with clear self-awareness and others-awareness within a given context. More and more, this idea of “perception management” is being referenced as a key component in developing global leaders. Learn to be as objective as possible, seeing clearly and keeping a focus on the ultimate good of all parties involved—it is pivotal. If you cultivate an attitude of expectant optimism, if you work to suspend judgment and show respect, and if you are energetic and committed, you will find it easier to see yourself and others with accuracy and fairness. When you are in a foreign context where there are many unknowns—it is unclear what information must be gathered, how much, from where or from whom. It is difficult to discern which information is most critical or relevant, particularly as you come to learn that the information collected and the ways you collected it in one cultural context may differ entirely from the kind of information and means needed to gather it from within another cultural context!

  • Meta-competency #3: Manage and overcome incompatibilities wherever possible. Anticipate conflict and be prepared to pursue reconciliation for the sake of the greater good. True commitment to the ultimate best good of all involved parties (and to the success of the goals you are collaborating to achieve) requires a spirit of service, patience, compassion, empathy, humility, and teachability. The humility is balanced by a self-confidence (c.f., meta-competency #2, because you are aware of yourself and where you fit within the whole picture). You can initiate and increase momentum in a positive cycle by treating others how you hope to be treated. For instance, we all make mistakes. Either wallowing in or shifting blame and shame are counter-productive. Be humble enough to own up to what you have done, and have the largesse of heart to help others do the same. Your efforts to forgive (yourself and others) make it easier for others to forgive you and each other. Likewise with communication—if you consistently demonstrate solution-oriented, relationship-bolstering communication when dealing with conflict, your team will learn to pursue the same, rather than avoiding direct communication. Optimally, developing these others-centered habits will enable you to manage and overcome incompatibilities. A lot of global leadership development thought so far fits within the purview of this third meta-competency—the concern of how to handle differences, how to handle incompatibility (or perceived incompatibility)—when it comes to cultural diversity, differences of opinion, worldviews, rank, role, status, information-sharing, personality types, learning styles, direct or indirect approaches to communication, and so forth.

So how do we navigate the “jungle” of speculation and theory about global leadership development?

Here’s a suggestion: We could approach the detangling of perceptions and opinions about global leadership similarly to how we would approach an intercultural scenario where global leadership competencies are critically needed.

We work to see ourselves and others clearly within the greater context. We practice awareness, growing keener and keener in perceiving the world around us. We humbly acknowledge that there is still much for all of us to learn in this new and constantly-changing subject.

We work to see ourselves and others clearly within the greater context. We practice awareness, growing keener and keener in perceiving the world around us. We humbly acknowledge that there is still much for all of us to learn in this new and constantly-changing subject.

We accept and address incompatible ideas, to close gaps and resolve conflicts that arise. We step back occasionally to embrace the bigger, more complete picture of which developing global leadership competencies is just one small pixel—and then we step back in to fill a need.

Master Fear

Handling fear—and the undervalued practice of being present and functional in the midst of ambiguity—these are not skills you gain overnight. You must think about them, pursue them, and practice them over and over in a variety of situations before they can become your default next moves—instead of a last resort.

Think about the specialized training that elite military units undergo, and why. Special forces must acquire not just technical skills and physical fortitude, but also the extreme levels of emotional and mental resilience needed to do their jobs. The ability to stay emotionally and mentally focused under difficult circumstances, while concurrently gathering intel about your surroundings, about where your opponent is, what they might be doing, anticipating their next move—some soldiers may be naturally inclined than others, helping them to acquire skills more quickly, but these competencies must be learned and put to work repeatedly if they are to become like second nature.

Develop Awareness

That second meta-competency, the idea that you need to be continuously perceiving and focusing acutely on the end goal and how best to reach it, is partly about rightly assessing the situation and partly about rightly adjusting. Like that of coaches and players in professional sports, there is a top-tier, competitive level of awareness and adaptation. They must evaluate and course-correct in order to stay on-track.

Consider a premier soccer player—the best players on the pitch are the ones who can see gaps and fill them seamlessly, without disruption. They do not have telepathic powers, and they cannot benefit from multiple camera angles, yet certain players are able to perceive weak spots and shore those up. If one of their teammates (or colleagues, if you will) is caught off-guard, and a gap forms, the best players can adapt and switch things up. They can assess the need quickly, see an optimal solution, and swiftly shift their shapes and roles as needed to fill any needs team-wide.

An interculturally-intelligent global leader will discern gaps—and that leader either will step in personally to fill the need, or else the leader will know how best to move people around quickly so that those gaps are filled with the team members who fit them best.

Manage and Overcome Incompatibilities

Martial arts is an apt illustration of both the 2nd and 3rd meta-competencies in action. First seeing and understanding oneself, one’s own strengths and weaknesses, position, vulnerabilities, and capabilities. Are you in tune with your own body, your mind, your emotional state? But also, the idea of really seeing and understanding your opponent—your superior, your colleague, your intern, your child—the other person/people involved. What is that person’s agenda, need, strength, weakness? Are you accurately gauging others’ motivation, their emotions, their goals?

Can you anticipate next moves? Can you foresee what immediate and long-term outcomes might be for this engagement? What if your “opponent” is stronger, or seems to be stronger than you are? What do you do with that? How do you redirect and recalibrate to create as much of a win-win situation as possible? How do you channel his or her strength to your own advantage, to accomplish what would ultimately be best-case scenario?

To a tremendous extent, excellence in global leadership has to do with the ability to demonstrate all three of these meta-competencies and their supportive characteristics while under pressure.

As a global leader, your state of being, your ability to be present—mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually—your ability to be present is directly correlated to your ability to be successful when the pressure is on.

The same could be said of these examples of special forces, martial arts, or soccer. Although the stakes certainly range in significance from “it’s just a game” to matters of life and death and international security—the same competencies are brought into play. These competencies stretch across cultural boundaries.

Make Right Decisions Quickly

Even under pressure, a warrior or a player needs to be able to trust his own intuitive decision-making. He or she needs a strong sense of self and awareness, and the ability to process data very rapidly, while the fight or contest progresses. Whether it is a battle or merely a game, the more there is to lose, the more pressure there is to lead rightly and to make right choices on the spot.

Unfortunately, the more you have to deliberate over your decisions in the moment, the more likely it is that you will make mistakes in the moment. To get to the point where these competencies become second nature, where your first inclination, your instinctive choice, is a solid decision you don’t have to think twice about—that takes intentional, consistent practice. We must practice these three meta-competencies, with the help of the principles that enable them, over and over under increasing levels of pressure.

So as you interact with colleagues or face a new situation, how aware are you? How mindful are you of your emotional state of being, your mental state of being? Are you improving your “contextual analysis” skills and understanding how everything fits within a given context? How much ambiguity is there? Uncertainty? Fear? And if you do sense fear, are you able to channel it, to repurpose it somehow in a positive way? Or, if a conflict crops up (or bursts out) as you engage, are you able to give room to that in an appropriate manner, to maintain your composure, and to keep engaging productively?

Tying it All Together

Unless you make developing these three meta-competencies a priority, the likelihood of all these newly-proposed “global leadership competencies” falling into place in real life is low.

Ultimately, it is imperative for a global leader to wield them—and to wield them habitually. If you permit your fear to paralyze you, it is impossible to move forward and to lead others forward. If your perception becomes skewed, you cannot understand what people mean, relate to them rightly, or re-calibrate accordingly. If you cannot patch up incongruence or bridge relational gaps, you cannot refocus on the end goal or the best route to reach it. At that point, you cannot hope to take anyone along on a journey with you at all. If any or all of these capacities are allowed to deteriorate—especially when the pressure is on—then your leadership will deteriorate rapidly in kind.

The bright side of that story is the opposite is true, as well! As you put these principles to work, as you invest enormous amounts of practice in developing your own and others’ capacities—especially when the pressure is on—then your global leadership competencies will grow, and you will find yourself increasingly able to rely on your split-second decisions, earning the respect of an intercultural team, and helping them succeed on the same journey.

So as you peer into that confusing jungle of opinions and conclusions, trying to navigate an ideal path to global leadership—go ahead! Accept that there may be hundreds and hundreds of conducive skills to be collected as you go, but be sure to take these three key “meta-competencies” along for the hike. In terms of our definition of Inter-Cultural Intelligence, you will develop the ability to anticipate the other party’s behavior and your own behavior, the ability to interpret that behavior accurately within the context, and the ability to adapt your game, to adapt your approach, wherever necessary.


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