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Why Leaders Fail in the Global Workplace

I once had a very talented manager who led our US team to great success and accolade. We all loved working for her, and she was the darling of the local leadership team.

At one point, she was provided with the opportunity to run a much bigger global piece of the business from our European headquarters that spanned 4 countries. We were so happy for her.

But, after 8 months of struggling in this new role, she resigned and left the company.

What happened?

Maybe she just couldn’t handle a bigger team? Maybe she just couldn’t adjust to an international environment? Or maybe she wasn’t as talented as leadership thought?

Or perhaps it was for a completely different reason.

The domestic leadership skills that served her so well in the US no longer served her in a global environment.

Common perception is that if you’re a good leader – with a great track record and a host of complete leadership trainings  – you’ll be good to go wherever you go.

A key inflection point, however, is what a leader pivots from a domestic role to a global role.

Why? Isn’t global leadership and traditional (domestic) leadership in essence the same concept?

The latest in global leadership research would say no.

Many domestic and global leadership competencies required for success overlap. Yet, a global leadership role places incredibly high demand on the deployment and skill level of those competencies.

Essentially, as the global role increases in intensity and complexity, the leader needs to deploy even more leadership skill.  

And in today’s globalized and technologically advanced world, the intensity and complexity run high.

Today a global leader can be defined as someone who works and acts to influence both internal and external people from multiple cultures and jurisdictions usually in a significant level of complexity.  

What keeps a global leader up at night might be:

  • Multiplicity – the number and type of business issues across a range of dimensions to consider e.g.: competitors, customers, government, regulation.
  • Interdependence – amongst a host of stakeholders: socio-cultural, political, economic and environmental systems in which you could be both a competitor and a partner, for example
  • Ambiguity – in terms of understanding causal relationships, interpreting international cues and signals, identifying appropriate actions and pursuing plausible goals without needing more and more information
  • Flux – of quickly changing and destabilizing environments causing a need for transitioning systems, shifting values and emergent patterns of organizational structure and behavior

(Lane, Maznevski, Mendenhall & McNett, 2004)

My boss, who showed tremendous skill in a domestic leadership role quickly became out of depth in our internationally matrixed and highly fluxing organization.

The company expected a lot of her in this new global position including the ability to translate her domestic leadership skills into global leadership skills immediately.

This isn’t shocking, a global survey by IBM with global Chief Human Resources officers explains, “building cross-cultural competencies through leadership development is rated as the most important HR capability needed to achieve global business objectives… but also rated the least effective of the HR capabilities.”

Most of the leadership programs developed in corporations today are suited for domestic leadership not global.

In fact, only one in five organizations emphasize global leadership development, in the true competency sense (Deloitte).

Those companies that can recruit and train talent with the knowledge, abilities, and motivation to fulfill global roles will see a major competitive advantage on the global stage.

While companies wake-up to the need for more appropriate global leadership programs, leaders themselves can begin to investigate and develop the competencies competencies they will need to thrive in global business. (Examples: here, here, and here).

Just keep in mind this warning from leadership experts “developing global leadership competencies takes time; it is a training process not a training event.” (Mendenhall). Learning competencies takes commitment, happens over stages, and involves personal transformation.

By leveraging the developmental methodologies for high potential development (below, Caliguri and Tarique 2011), budding global leaders can create a tailored development path.

Because in the end, stellar domestic leaders, just like my old boss, deserve to try their chance on the global leadership stage, as long as they are prepared for what exists outside their borders.


Special thanks to Dr. Joyce Osland and Dr. Sully Taylor of the Kozai Group for their 1 week training on global leadership and insights from the field at the Institute for Intercultural Communications.

Resources for this article include:

  • Global Leadership 2e: Research, Practice, and Development 2nd Edition – Joyce Osland, Allan Bird, Gary R. Oddou, Martha L Maznevski, Michael Stevens, Günter K. Stahl
  • Global leadership Joyce S. Osland San Jose State University
  • Global Leadership – Different From Domestic Leadership by PSI


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