A table of global leaders with a bright sky in the background
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I naively used to think of successful global leaders as superhuman. They stood at the helm of international organizations, experts on international affairs. They spoke fluent English and rubbed shoulders with world leaders. But through experience (and the experience below), that image crumbled. In its place, I developed a sense that the goal of becoming a true global leader was not nearly so unattainable.

In April 2016, we invited Masao Torii, President of Boehringer Ingelheim Japan, to teach the special four-class Global Leadership Development Program for the English MBA Program at GLOBIS University. Approximately thirty-two students from Japan and around the world participated in the course. During the first class, students commented that, to become global leaders, they needed to learn business and communication skills and understand foreign cultures.

However, they would soon realize that this alone is not enough.

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The 4 Characteristics of Effective Global Leaders

The big change happened in the third class. Torii organized an interview with four guests—global leaders from Boehringer Ingelheim Japan. A diverse group of men and women from Germany, India, and Japan, they specialized in different fields: R&D, sales, legal affairs, and IT. The Q&A identified four characteristics of effective global leadership.

Characteristic #1: Learning

Though we often think of leaders as people who can teach us, the fact is that global leaders have a passion for learning. Their learning mindset is a big part of what sets them apart.

Characteristic #2: Listening

Because they want to learn, global leaders listen. Closely. Eagerly. Intensely. Through their listening, they develop a deep understanding of each local subsidiary’s situation from both a local and global (HQ) perspective.

Characteristic #3: Multifaceted Approach to Strategy

Thanks to their understanding of both the local and the global perspectives, global leaders can create an optimal management strategy. Of course, they pull from other areas for this, as well: a historical perspective, knowledge of the market, and ability to access available resources.

Characteristic #4: Bold, but Fair Strokes

These many moving parts together help strike a balance that both the headquarters and subsidiaries can agree upon. But not without one final ingredient: personality. Global leaders utilize the best parts of their own personality—say, courage, integrity, and trust—to forge fair solutions.

The Value of Learning above All Else

The most essential characteristic for global leadership seems to be the first: a passion for learning, a curiosity about new and different things.

The Indian and German leaders were dispatched to Japan from their company’s global headquarters. They put their energy into learning about Japanese initiatives and market conditions. Contrary to the stereotype of the loud, obnoxious foreigner, it was clear they made an effort to step back and observe. From that, they gained a deep recognition of why they were here in Japan and what was necessary for their subsidiary.

The global leaders from Japan, too, leveraged their experiences working overseas and participating in headquarters meetings. What they learned enabled them to act in ways appropriate to Japanese business culture, but still apply understanding gained from their work at the global headquarters.

Skills (understanding international situations, management knowledge, cross-cultural communication, etc.) alone clearly do not make a global leader. Indeed, it seems the most important characteristic is learning, which can be further boiled down to daily awareness and action.

Global leaders aren’t superhuman. The pursuit of awareness and action is achievable for anyone.

Become a Leader Who Connects Different Spaces

Ki, a spiritual energy permeating the universe, also acknowledges that bringing together diverse nationalities and skills is a good thing.

A global headquarters is a single sphere of influence, and a Japanese subsidiary is another. Global leaders strive to use their bodies and consciousness/awareness (time/space) to tie those two spheres together. Rather than hold a single perspective, they must physically stand in a position that shares the perspective of both spheres.

Ki and the body are deeply connected: ki is the waves of awareness and intent that humans emit, while the body is our physical existence. Global leaders hold the awareness and intent needed to bring together two separate spheres of influence. By grounding their physical bodies, they charge their ki with physical properties—like lightning rods. Information passes between two separate spaces (HQ being like the sky, and the subsidiary being like the ground). It is much easier for information to flow through the established channel of a global leader (a lightning rod) than trickle through multiple, unpredictable new ones.

So if experienced global leaders are like lightning rods that conduct information between HQ and a subsidiary, what separates the good leaders from the great ones?

For that, we need to consider the mental state of truly effective global leaders. This is different than mere awareness or intent. Given two leaders with differing mental states, which would help the information flow more easily, more effectively, and add more meaning and value?

Throwing Your Opponent with Gratitude

In aikido, when throwing a training partner, you can choose to throw them aggressively, or with gratitude. In my years studying aikido, I’ve found that the latter approach produced a throw that was many times sharper, cleaner, and therefore more effective.

The feeling of gratitude soothes your body and mind, and this in turn affects your partner’s body. If global leaders, as the lightning rods between different spaces, can recognize this difference and hold true gratitude for being in this role, they can add more value and meaning to the information that pass through them. Gratitude affects the ki in the transmission, improving communication across the global business.

In other words, good leaders may rely on aggression, but great leaders show gratitude.

Whether working in HQ or a local office, global leaders need to be able to understand the situation around them, starting with listening and learning, then directing their awareness globally, to a place where they are not. They then need the courage and commitment to connect different spaces and build solutions—with gratitude.

All of this can help you achieve awareness. After that comes action, for which you’ll need international affairs knowledge, management expertise, and cross-cultural skills for optimal cross-border solutions.

Global leaders are not supermen (or superwomen). Their skills are developed through gradual hard work and commitment over time. A dash of gratitude on top of that boosts them from good to great.