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Jakarta Post

Character at heart of global leadership

  • Stewart Black and Allen Morrison

    The Jakarta Post

  /   Sat, January 11, 2014   /  03:46 pm

Most people think that the higher you go, the more authority and control you have. But our research finds that in today'€™s complex, global environment, the higher you go, the more you get things done because of the goodwill and trust you develop, not because of your formal authority.

Emotional connections

Global leaders need to establish personal, empathetic relationships with people from all backgrounds inside their company, and in the broader community. Doing this requires three distinct abilities: sincere interest in other people, a heightened ability to listen, and a strong capacity for understanding different viewpoints.

Sincere interest in others

Our research found that effective global leaders actually like people '€“ all kinds of people. They enjoy talking with people and being around them. They care about people and want in some way to make their lives better. All of these attributes help them to form better business relationships, which are a critical part of doing business in many countries.

Genuinely listening to people

Being interested in people is not the same as genuinely listening to them. As one executive recently told us, '€œIt can be too easy when you are in a leadership position to do all the talking.'€ Yet, for others to feel understood, leaders must excel at picking up verbal and non-verbal communications. They must also overcome the '€œeveryone thinks the same'€ assumption, which suggests a superficial understanding of the aspirations, interests, and feelings of other people.

Understanding viewpoints

Understanding people requires leaders to relate personally to the lives of their employees, customers, and others who are relevant to the business. It means understanding context and, more specifically, how to provide appropriate leadership within it in whatever cultural context one finds oneself. Establishing emotional connections is an essential part of effective global leadership, but this is not the same as '€œgoing native'€. Leaders who are interested in people, who are excellent listeners and who are familiar with local conditions and traditions do not have to become like the people they are with. While they need to keep an open mind, they should never forget who they are or what they represent.


Integrity forms the bedrock of character and is essential in establishing genuine emotional connections with people. We define integrity as having and demonstrating a strong commitment to personal and company standards. This includes ethical behavior as well as loyalty to the company'€™s agreed-upon values and strategy.Both personal and company standards are substantially more prone to compromise overseas. When far removed from corporate oversight and routines, most managers face increased pressure to modify their personal ethics and alter their unit'€™s standards to appeal to local values and demands. In most cases, such '€œflexibility'€ can bring short-term gains.

External relationships

Ethical behaviors in relationships outside the firm pose particularly difficult challenges in a global context. There can be considerable differences between the dominant behaviors of a particular culture, and judgments about appropriate behaviors, regardless of culture.

When leaders'€™ ethical standards are different from a country'€™s behavioral norms, they and their company have three basic choices: avoid doing business in that country; maintain their own standards and risk being placed at a competitive disadvantage as a result; and change their standards to play the game the way the locals do.

Our experience suggests that this last option is not sustainable in global companies. Questionable behavior in one country can rarely be contained. Eventually the entire world finds out. Global leaders understand that global companies have global reputations, and need global standards of conduct.

Internal relationships

Global leaders must demonstrate their high personal standards in all their internal interactions within the corporation. These standards cannot vary by country; managers will lose respect if they treat people inconsistently.The most effective global leaders combine enormous insight into people with strong moral character. Such leaders are superbly skilled at building trust and goodwill, both inside the company and in the community as a whole. And, because trust and goodwill are critical to business success, character is the natural starting point for any discussion of global leadership competencies.

Black, the professor of Global Leadership and Strategy at IMD, and Morrison, the professor of Global Management and the holder of the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Chair for Responsible Leadership at IMD, are directors of The Leadership Challenge program, designed for senior executives with significant responsibilities who must ensure their organization'€™s success now and in the future. This is an edited extract from a chapter in Black and Morrison'€™s forthcoming book, The Global Leadership Challenge.

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