International Leadership

My terminology for international leadership is a leadership responsibility that crosses national and cultural barriers. One may ask why leadership skills in an international setting would vary from leadership skills in one’s native culture. In many cases, it is the same. But it has been my personal experience that in most cases it is significantly more complex. The opportunity for misunderstandings and therefore mistakes are much greater. In an international situation, one’s leadership skills must be more alert and different in many ways.

At an early age, I was made aware that I may not fully understand another culture as well as I believed. I was a young salesman in Japan selling materials for the electronics industry. Two of my accounts were among the world’s largest electronics companies. One time we were introducing a new product which performed well in our internal tests. I was presenting the product to our customer base in Japan. My contact at one company had responsibility for all offshore procurement. He spoke excellent English, my native language. During the meeting, I believed that they were very pleased with my presentation. After the meeting, I mentioned to our own company man from Japan that I expected things to go well with this product at this account. He told me they would not purchase the new product. I asked why and he said the man’s face lied. I have traveled to Japan more than 100 times in my career and at the time of that meeting at least 25 times. To this day, I have no idea how to read a face that lies in Japan. Our man was correct. We did not get the sale.

Another time when I made a presentation to a company, their company’s key technical PhD explained to me that our new product had excellent results in their internal tests and was much better than our current offering. I asked for the order and was told they would not purchase the product because they wanted the same appearance as our current product. After this comment I assumed there was a language problem but, after eight hours of explaining that it was not the same product and would not therefore look the same, I realized language had nothing to do with it. They just wanted improved results without any change in appearance which was impossible for us. Besides, it made no logical sense to me personally. We waited for more than a year to receive orders for the new product.

When one is leading in his own culture, it is easier for everyone to grasp the nuances. In an international situation, this assumption can be a disaster and cause serious misunderstanding. Early in my career based on my experiences in Japan and other areas of the world, I realized I should never assume anything. This attitude proved very beneficial over the years. It forced me to be a better listener and at the same time it gave the international groups that reported to me more of an opportunity to participate in the direction we were taking the business. The group soon realized all the trust and confidence I had in them and the response was always positive.

I had the opportunity to work across more than 20 different cultural lines in my career and I always found one commonality. No matter the size of the nation or the culture, there was always a strong feeling of national pride. If one has any doubts about this, they should just attend a World Cup match. This same pride carries over into the business world and many other areas. It is a necessity and the responsibility of the leader to make sure that pride is not harmed. The leader must realize in this situation that he has a minimum amount of control. He is even more dependent than he would be in a normal leadership position. I have always referred to this leadership style as “leading with a very soft hand”.

The leader may accomplish the above and still have a serious leadership problem. I found one of the most difficult areas for the leader is to coach and teach his staff on how to interact with the international group. The leader will not always be available for many meetings between the two groups. Many times it is hard to control a condescending or arrogant attitude by the leader’s own staff. This generally happens when the leader is not present. The leader may have a serious problem and not realize it until major problems appear. The leader must take into account that it is very difficult for the international group to bring up these issues to him. They realize this is the leader’s team and can be reluctant to complain. What may appear to be small issues at the time can build and cause major damage to the organization. Therefore, the leader has to develop a very trusting relationship with the key person in the international group. This can only be accomplished by the leader frankly exposing his personal concerns and attitudes to the key person. This can be very effective by giving the international team more autonomy and responsibility for the success of the organization. I always made one point clear to each of the key contacts I had. I would never fault them for bringing anything to my attention regardless of how small it may seem at the time. I would fault them only if they were aware of a potential issue and did not discuss it with me and it harmed the organization and the business. In my own personal case, this approach worked and these trusting relationships evolved into personal friendships that I still enjoy today.

I found the approach I used in the international leadership role to be a very effective one for me. However, it may not be the proper approach for all leaders. As we all know, leadership style has to be developed from our own personal beliefs.