A few years ago, I was asked to deliver a training on global leadership for senior executives at a well-known multinational in the beauty industry. They were keen to use my skills in participatory approaches to learning and my background in China to consider what it meant to ‘glocalise’ a company, managing strategic operations from Europe whilst empowering local teams around the world to take advantage of local opportunities. After delivering my own training which was well-received, they asked me to sit in on a strategic planning session by one of their own in-house consultants.
It was evident he was not happy having me in the room. “Pale, male and stale”, he delivered a soliloquy on the ‘corporate values’ of the said company, before putting team members into groups on tables to discuss ways to cascade the company’s values throughout the global organisation. Not once did I see any collaborative discussion on what those values were and how they were expressed, nor yet any support for how these regional leaders were to inspire in their teams the necessary behaviours to bring about transformation in the company. It was pure top-down leadership – and death by powerpoint.
Powerpoint has it’s place in learning, for sure, as a back up to provide context for what you have just experienced, but we must be cautious to not put the cart before the horse. True learning means that we are able to take action, to go from the classroom into life and the work environment and ensure that everything we have learnt has relevance and application immediately into our experience.
But the powerpoint presentation masked a much more dangerous issue. Top-down leadership models, set on high from European capitals, from individuals with little or no grassroots global experience. There was a lack of genuine leadership. A truly empowering leadership competency that maximises the potential of employees who are on the ground, receiving, listening, working alongside customers and suppliers, who, in turn, help influence corporate values instead of merely implementing them following orders after a fancy corporate retreat.
Why is it so hard to get corporate leaders to understand that change cannot happen without truly empowering your teams? And why is it that too many decisions around strategy are made by corporate leaders in their ivory towers in European capitals? It’s as if there is so much fear in the room, fear that leaders will be usurped if their subordinates in the regions get a taste of their own potential, fear that there will be no jobs left for the Europeans if we unleash the potential of China and the emerging markets? Or that somehow Europe will lose out to the energy and dynamism of the emerging world?
But what would it look like if leaders in Europe were capable of exercising truly ‘global’ thinking in how they empower and lead their teams globally? What would corporate training and strategic retreats look like if there was a genuine desire to lead in a way that truly empowers others? And with the understanding that a more equal interplay between global and local empowers everyone in equal measure?
There is little nuanced understanding that true leadership, the kind that empowers others, can only ever result in an ever-increasing virtuous circle that empowers those that lead also. There is no need for fear. When we empower others, we unleash a potential that enables us, as leaders, to go further also. It’s no zero sum game here, but opens the door to a wealth of possibility.
The pandemic has upended the world as we know it. Forced to ground ourselves literally in our homes, we can no longer rely on regular trips across the world to keep everything – and everyone – in check. We are learning to lead remotely and to understand how to manage teams, both local and global ones, in a totally different way. It’s leadership that starts with understanding yourself, building your own internal resilience, and exercising the necessary empathy and listening skills to lead wisely through the turbulent waters we now face. It is about equipping leaders with practical skills to then implement decisions that they have built together with their teams and to model the necessary behaviour change that must cascade through a company in order to achieve financial success, alongside the achievement of social and environmental goals.
It creates an enormous opportunity. The chance to ‘let go’ and realise that true leadership comes from within and can never be externally imposed. If we could just take the time to engage in corporate learning that enables us as leaders to ‘dig deeper’ into what truly ‘higher order’ leadership means, we could unleash the extraordinary potential of what it means to be a truly global thinker – and actor too.
Copyright Caroline Watson 2022