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3 myths about what it takes to be a global leader

Do you have what it takes to be a global leader? Or do you discount your abilities because you’re clinging to beliefs in three myths about what it takes to successfully lead in a cross-cultural environment? Today more than ever, the world is interconnected through technology and trade. While people have engaged in economic transactions since the dawn of humanity, every modern location in today’s world now has the potential for linking to a global market (Cabrera and Unruh, 2012, p. 14). Leaders are adept at bringing people together, equipping them, and inspiring them to accomplish a common goal. The global leader does so on a larger scale with the added complications of cultural differences which may include language and other communication barriers, different work ethics and values, and balancing varying legal, education, and economic systems. If you’re looking at moving deeper into the global market, but fear you don’t have what it takes, look at the following myths and take courage in the counteracting truths.

Myth #1: Diverse Childhood Experiences

I was the only white kid in my fourth grade class. As a “Navy brat” I lived on both coasts, visited Mexico and Canada, and had friends from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Compared to my high school friends who had never left Wyoming, I had a fairly diverse childhood, until I was 12 and settled into small-town America. Much of what people believe about themselves and the world around them is learned in early childhood when the brain is most receptive to learning and assimilating. Research indicates children develop and exhibit “implicit race attitudes” early in their development, usually by age six. Attitudes level out by age 10 and from there stay pretty steady unless challenged (Baron and Banaji, 2006. P. 57). Authors Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) liken this learning to “mental programming” which begins within the family, continues within the child’s neighborhood, school, and friend groups, and furthers in the workplace and community at large (p. 5). While cross-cultural experiences help develop a broader worldview in children, lack of them does not destine anyone to  purely local leadership successes.  

Truth #1: Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks

While it is easier to adopt a global mindset if you’ve grown up around a variety of cultural influences, it is not impossible to develop cultural sensitivity later in life. It is possible to unlearn negative attitudes and values and learn and adopt new information and attitudes. Hytten and Bettez (2008) believe teaching globalization can help develop critical thinking and enhance the ability to “unlearn dominant assumptions and ideologies” (p. 179). Caligiuri (2013) recommends developing your cultural agility by actively acquiring deep knowledge about at least one other culture. Read everything you can about that country’s history, news, politics, business practices, even their national bird (p. 71). 

Myth #2:  Extensive International Travel

It is a common belief that the more stamps in your passport the more culturally diverse you are. The businessperson who travels to India four times a year for corporate meetings may believe herself fluent in the Indian culture. However, people tend to stick with what they are comfortable with, so when they travel away from the familiar, they look for familiar foods, people groups, and experiences. If the business traveler to India mentioned earlier flies in, takes a car service from the airport to the hotel and from the hotel to corporate headquarters then back to the hotel, orders room service and does paperwork into the night, has she really learned anything about the people and their culture? Even those who live and work in another country may not be as culturally savvy as they could be. It is common for expatriates to live in communities of people from their own country, send their children to schools with other expat kids, and socialize with peers from similar backgrounds. Military personnel stationed in other countries with their families tend to live on post and socialize with those whom they work. They may venture outside the familiar to play tourist but have very little interaction with people native to the visiting country.

Truth #2: Quality Trumps Quantity

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve traveled outside of your home country if your international experience doesn’t extend past the airport and hotel lobby. A couple summers ago I road tripped across Scotland with my family. We stayed in bed and breakfasts rather than large hotels and frequently engaged with people everywhere we went. By the time we got to Northern Ireland, however, we realized we’d spent five days in Scotland and quite possibly never actually spoke to a local. Nearly everyone we engaged with had moved to Scotland from somewhere else, many of whom were college students only working in Scotland temporarily. 

Get honest with yourself and assess your cross-cultural experiences in your global travels. The next time you travel, make a conscious effort to safely break away from the hotel lobby, the local corporate office, and tourist attractions. Seek out opportunities to spend time with colleagues from the country you’re visiting. Ask questions and actively listen to their answers. People are less likely to be offended and more open to sharing about their local culture if they know you sincerely want to learn. Reciprocate with information about your culture if they ask, but don’t dominate the conversation or act superior. 

Myth #3:  A Degree in International Studies

Have you ever thought you don’t have the makings of a global leader because you’ve never studied other cultures or learned another language? Do you think global leadership is only for those with an International MBA or other degree in international studies, even if it’s only French literature? While there are universities that offer degrees in global leadership, one is not necessary to compete in the global economy. A global mindset and hands-on experience is more important than an untested university education.

Truth #3: Nothing Beats Personal Experience

Education is great and will certainly go a long way toward helping you become an effective global leader, but nothing beats personal experience. By all means, learn everything you can. Education is a never-ending process. There is always something new to learn. But “book learnin’” is just one step in the journey to globalization. Studies have shown education helps people feel confident about their abilities but doesn’t necessarily translate into reality. Paula Caligiuri (2012) conducted a study among students in leading International MBA programs. She and her research partner asked students with education but no practical experience in an international setting to rate themselves on their ability to conduct business in another country. Those with no “on the ground” experience rated themselves more able than their counterparts who were either currently working in an international rotation, or who had already completed their rotation (p. 15). Caligiuri concluded those with education but no international experience had “cultural bravado”, but those with both education and international experience had “cultural humility” which is a “highly valuable competency for global professionals to possess” (p. 16). Don’t be so concerned with your lack of formal education as you are with gaining opportunities to collaborate with international peers and learn from those experiences. 


Being global isn’t about how many languages you speak, how many intercultural friends you have on social media, or how many times you’ve traveled outside your home country. It is a personal journey you embark upon by first making a conscious decision to become global. The first step to becoming global is to envision the kind of person you want to be and the kind of world in which you want to live. The second step is deciding to embrac

e a global mindset and be open to learning. The final and ongoing step lies in choosing where you’ll focus your attention, how you’ll spend your time, and how you’ll engage your mind (Cabrera and Unruh, p. 19). Globalization is a reality of our world. Understanding and thriving in this global economy is important for existing and emerging leaders. So, stop telling yourself you don’t have what it takes and embark upon your personal journey of global leadership success.


Baron, A. S., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). The Development of Implicit Attitudes: Evidence of Race Evaluations From Ages 6 and 10 and Adulthood. Psychological Science17(1), 53–58. 

Cabrera, A. & Unruh, G. (2012). Being Global: How to think, act, and lead in a transformed world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.  

Caligiuri, P. (2012). Cultural agility: Building a pipeline of successful global professionals. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Caligiuri, P. (2013). Develop your cultural agility. T & D, 67(3), pp. 70-72).

Hofstede, G. Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: software of the mind: intercultural cooperation and its importance for survival, (3rd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Hytten, K., & Bettez, S. C. (2008). Teaching Globalization Issues to Education Students: What’s the Point? Equity & Excellence in Education41(2), 168–181.


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