A Global Village
Issue 4 » Networked

What exactly is Global Leadership?

William Wong, 3become1

2011 has begun with two great disruptions, the Arab World uprising and the systemic impact of the natural catastrophe that hit Japan.

The sweeping changes in North Africa and the Middle East not only sent the price of crude oil well above $100 a barrel, fuelling further inflationary pressures from across Europe to China, but will have longer-term implications on the fragile balance of power between Israel and the rest in the region. The uncertain equilibrium in governance ahead poses a direct threat to global energy security, whilst the upheaval unfolding moment by moment is rewriting an entrenched social order in a manner that was hitherto unimaginable.

Challenges in our global village demand global solutions, calling upon global leadership. Right?

Just when some pundits argued that Libya is a classic example of why the West should wean itself off its dependence on oil, the earthquake in Japan turned cause and effect analyses on their heads. Whilst we could adapt and mitigate against the devastating impacts of earthquakes and tsunamis, the threat of a nuclear meltdown in north-eastern Japan immediately reignited the debate on how ‘clean’ nuclear energy is within the agenda of low-carbon economies and climate change. Energy security vs. human security.

Welcome to the global age of anxiety and paradox, chaotic complexity and exponential change. Whatever your views on globalisation, it is very likely we see more of President Obama on our television and electronic device screens than our parents and neighbours put together. What has happened with Obama’s messianic campaign slogan of ‘YES WE CAN”? Two years on, why are we still hearing ‘Yes we can, but not yet’?

Challenges in our global
village demand global
solutions, calling upon
global leadership. Right?  

Thinking of the familiar charismatic and transformative ‘revolutionaries’ in history: Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa, each held a bold and singular vision for a better future, followed by consistent commitment to their chosen cause.

What Does Leadership Mean to You?
A good metaphor may be others choose to follow you out of free will. Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. Businesses, organisations, communities and wider societies are after all aggregates of individuals, so leadership begins with the self. Peter Drucker’s ‘Managing Oneself’ is packed with timeless insights, but management is not leadership. Leadership and management are complementary and interdependent. Warren Bennis goes even further to say “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.”

Talent is overrated. Intellectual firepower aplenty. Leaders need to zoom in and zoom out. Spatial awareness is in short supply but emotional intelligence could be developed. Before embarking on grand visions, mission, strategies, policies and processes, knowing yourself is key. Isn’t this common sense? But common sense is far from being common.

There is the tried and tested psychometric testing, and strengths identifier tools that help you understand your personality and those who work with you better. But no customised template could help you with the much bigger and fundamental questions of “Who are you?” and “What is your purpose in life?” Most people would cringe at soul-searching. Yet we often look and forget to see, hear but fail to listen. Perhaps, “Who do you want to become, or what is your best potential self?” are more pertinent questions.

Awareness is the beginning of change, self or global. Awareness begins with curiosity. Curiosity stimulates an open mind, an open heart, and an open will. This in turn encourages continuous and lifelong learning. Keeping abreast of what is happening is no longer enough, but how and why it is happening, why now, and what that means for the future. Information may be abundant, but it is original insight that is critical to progress. Yet the answers you seek depend on the quality of questions you ask. Are you asking the relevant questions? There are many right answers.

Leaders need
to zoom in
and zoom out

Passion is infectious and is key to leading effectively. It underpins your core values and what drives you. But passion alone does little. It is a bridge to engaging with others who may have a totally different worldview from yours. True engagement is based on active listening and understanding; a genuine empathy for differences and diversity comes from within.

Dealing with the unknown is part and parcel to leadership. Doing nothing is fine as a strategic choice, rather than a reflection of decision-making inertia. Taking calculated risks towards the uncertain requires courage, and even more so when galvanising support and momentum from a wide range of competing stakeholders. In times of immense change, it is not blind bravery but rather tactical resilience addressing the delicate balance between power and accountability that wins hearts and minds.

You may have to cross the bridge as it is built. What are your top five leadership behaviours?

Community Leadership
Feel free to swap ‘community’ with business, cultural, organisational, social or political. Increasingly, you need to be able to navigate complexity and embrace diversity. Economic cycles and public sector reforms have led to the conventional boundaries separating the public, private and third sectors becoming more blurred. Deep-rooted cultures and distinctive working practices in each sector often could be at odds with top-down policy initiatives, causing friction through a carousel of restructuring exercises that often prove counterproductive.

Perhaps innovation through partnerships is easier said than done. Interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration remains the exception rather than norm. It is more of an art than science to weave the three sectors together seamlessly, and explore the spaces in between.

We have a long way to go when glass ceilings in prominent corporate boardroom and senior executive appointments remain a hot topic at the centenary of the International Women’s Day. Besides gender diversity, there is a wide range of further complex issues to be tackled such as cultural and ethnic divisions, social and class structures, discrimination in the areas of disability and sexuality.

Great leaders understand followership. So, why should anyone be led by you?

Global Leadership
There is an important distinction to be made between global and international leadership. The latter infers a domestic counterpoint, as one sees at any major international airport. Increasing physical and social mobility challenges the concept of home and abroad. Global indicates a state of mind where the world is indeed one village, despite all its diversity.

Our 24/7 news feed has shifted the perception of what is global, national and local. Despite the underlying interdependence between complex factors and forces shaping our daily lives, most people are not natural-born globalists. If anything, more and more are rejecting the banal homogeneity of globalisation, reverting to a stronger national, regional or local identity. Yet, the borderless world of Internet communications, social media and capital flows directly challenges the established order of nation states and trade blocs.

Knowing when
to step down

is scarce and

To be a true global leader, you need to be genuinely interested in the world as a whole, systemically; and at the same time understand that many competing silos remain in force. For any given situation, you need to grasp all of its political-economic-social-technological-legal-environmental (PESTLE) implications. These must be distilled into what could potentially fuse or divide cultures. To help others decipher ever-changing complexities and realities, you need to articulate all of the above in plain language highlighting opportunities and threats. But opportunities and threats are relative to your personal or organisational strengths and weaknesses at any one point (SWOT). Hence, we have come full circle back to knowing yourself, and the people you lead.

Self-awareness and intellectual prowess alone would not change the world. You have to able to build broad-based and shifting alliances to mobilise and create new resources towards latent and unexpected demands. There will be times when no strength of diplomacy or charisma can win you backing and followership. Will you go against conventional wisdom to do the right thing? 

It may be heroic to drive a moral crusade, but knowing when to step down is scarce and undervalued. Mikhail Gorbachev and F. W. de Klerk have respectively been instrumental in changing the future of Europe and South Africa irreversibly. Both made history by gracefully getting out of its way.

What would be your global leadership legacy?

William Wong is Chief Executive of 3become1, a brand strategy firm that brokers cross-border investments in arts and culture. He is Founder and Chair of an innovation lab in public service reform, 2007/08 Clore Leadership Fellow and 2009 Visiting Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, MBA 1998 alumnus and current member of the Business School Alumni Advisory Board.

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