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The A-B-C of international leadership

2020-01-13 Marlene Berglund

Working internationally certainly has its advantages – you gain insights into parts of the world formerly invisible; you understand the operations of a complex global enterprise; you get to meet interesting people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet. Yet internationality also brings challenges for those in leadership role. Most obviously, the lingua franca of working life becomes English. Ask most business professionals, and it’s the issue of culture which is most problematic. Or maybe it’s simply the difficulties of working across time zones, having to collaborate in virtual teams and in virtual meetings. Language, culture and distance – the core issues of international leadership. Well, maybe yes; maybe no.

The biggest challenge is inside your own head

What’s interesting about these commonly cited challenges is that they are all external. Yet probably the greatest challenge when working internationally is inside your own head. It’s the assumptions and biases which you bring to the team table - your own ideas about leadership, efficient cooperation and effective decision making - which others do not share, and may find strange, even unprofessional in some cases. And then there’s the frustration, the irritation, even the anger when others challenge and confound your beliefs, when those emails drop into your inbox which feel confrontational, even rude to some degree. The assumptions which we bring, the emotions which infect our thinking when working internationally – this is challenge number one. In competence terms, we need to develop openness, tolerance, curiosity and empathy towards those not just who are different, but to those who challenge us. Now, if you think you already have this openness and tolerance, you’re more dangerous than you think. After over twenty years in this field, my one conclusion is that human beings are surprisingly closed and defensive; yet believe they are open and collaborative.

Being yourself is likely to fail

Cultivating a truly positive, curious and resilient mindset - the attitude for internationality – needs to be accompanied by flexible behaviours; a willingness and capability to present, to socialise, to negotiate, to plan, to give feedback in a variety of styles according to the individuals and context facing you. Mono-style behaviour - being yourself, being authentic, doing it the way you normally do it - is likely to fail, because people from different places may find your behaviour either confusing or unacceptable. Take the classical ‘Swedish’ reserve in first meetings, and extensive use of discussion in meetings; this often convinces international professionals of two things: their Swedish counterparts are uncollaborative, inefficient and lacking in confidence to lead assertively. I’ve heard this misperception from non-Swedes too often for it to be random. Leading and working internationally, our behaviours need to flex at times so we come across transparently and positively to others.

Positive attitude, flexible behaviour and co-creation of culture

In the end, positive attitude (the ‘A’) and flexible behaviour (the ‘B’) will get you so far. Those in a leadership role need to openly discuss with colleagues the rules of engagement, and co-create together an effective collaboration culture. This explicit norming means we can adapt as a group, or as a pair of individuals, and align transparently on how best to handle the reality in front of us. How shall we do leadership? How shall we communicate? What kind of relationship do we need? What does trust mean for us? These simple questions, which are so useful to bring clarity and alignment to working relationships, are so seldom asked. People don’t take time for the ‘C’, the co-creation of culture.

All this means, of course, more effort – more thinking, more flexing, more conversations around communication. Well, effort and taking responsibility to make the right things happen – this is the core of leadership. It’s a choice we make in life – to engage and lead, or to sit back and be led, sometimes in ways which we don’t enjoy.  So ask yourself – which attitude do I bring to my international workplace, how do I flex to meet the expectations of others, and who do I need to discuss collaboration with to build a better culture around me. The fact that you are asking yourself these questions means you are already going in the right direction.


Bob Dignen, York Associates, expert in international communication and one of the trainers at "Executive Assistant 2025"