How do leadership and behavioural skills vary around the world? Debra J
Cohen and Lisbeth Claus take a closer look
Society and business have become global, with companies operating in
multiple countries. With a global culture comes a need for a new type of
leadership. A global workforce requires leaders to be able to work in cultures
different from their own. What makes a leader an effective one for a
multinational company? To explore effective global leadership, the Society for
Human Resource Management (SHRM), in conjunction with the SHRM Global Forum,
conducted a survey of HR professionals throughout the world.
As globalisation among businesses continues to increase in both scope and
depth, many organisations have begun to concentrate on the type of leadership
skills needed to effectively manage, build and sustain them. But are certain
leadership behaviours or skills viewed with the same level of importance around
the world? If companies around the world are to recruit, retain and develop
leaders, it is helpful to know if there are any common denominators of
importance or noteworthy differences from region to region.
Effective leadership styles are likely to vary between cultures and
countries. All leaders and managers need to influence behaviour and add value
to their organisations, but how they accomplish this may vary. Similarly, all
organisations must recruit, retain and develop this talent. One purpose of this
study was to investigate what organisations around the world value in terms of
leadership behaviours and skills.
Respondents were randomly-drawn members from SHRM and the SHRM Global Forum.
A survey link was e-mailed to 1,898 participants. A total of 426 participants
working in 52 countries responded -a response rate of 22 per cent. The SHRM
Global Forum’s Thought Leadership Committee and the SHRM Survey Program jointly
developed the survey instrument.
The first analysis was a simple comparison of where the headquarters of the
organisation are located (inside the US vs. outside the US); results are
depicted in Table 1. Character and performance were the top two characteristics
identified by the respondents.
Performance was rated first by respondents located in organisations where
the headquarters are outside the US, whereas character was identified first in
organisations headquartered in the US. Adaptability was rated important by both
US and non-US firms, but was viewed as more important by non-US firms. HR
professionals in US firms indicated that flexibility and ethical behaviours are
more important than other behaviours or skills. Conversely, HR professionals in
non-US firms indicate that persistence and being visionary are more important.
Focusing on the top five behaviours and skills, character and performance
are clearly the most important behaviours and skills as identified by
respondents and represent a common denominator among all organisations,
regardless of size. However, there are some interesting differences by
Table 2 shows the comparison of the top five behaviours and skills as rated
in importance by the respondents across small (1-100 employees), medium
(101-500), and large (501 and above) organisations. In looking at the top five
behaviours and skills as rated by importance, small organisations identify
technical capability and persistence as key issues, as do medium organisations;
yet, large organisations do not.
In contrast, large companies identify flexibility as important while smaller
companies do not. Adaptability is important to large and medium companies, but
not small ones. This analysis shows that organisations of different size categories
may look to recruit leaders with different behaviours and skills and may train
existing leaders for different behaviours and skills since they have different
value systems. This analysis also shows that the presence of so many large
organisations in our sample, compared to small and medium organisations, skewed
our overall importance ratings to reflect larger organisations more than small
or medium ones.
When the region of headquarters country was considered, character and performance
were again common denominators, with these behaviours and skills rated by
participants as either the first or second most important factor in seven out
of eight geographic regions.
As shown in table 3, in only one case – the Middle East – neither character
nor performance was listed as the most important behaviour. In this case,
technical capability was rated the highest, with performance a close second.
Technical capability was rated as one of the top five in four out of nine
regions, as was persistence. Ethical behaviours was rated in the top five in
five out of nine regions, as was flexibility. Adaptability was rated in the top
five in six out of nine regions.
Having logical skills was rated among the top five by respondents from
Central America and the Middle East. Having organisational skills was
identified as important by respondents from Asia and the Middle East, as was
being visionary. Respondents from Africa rated self-confidence as an important
characteristic, and respondents from South America rated reconciliation of
differences and ambiguities as among the top five behaviours or skills.
Clearly, there is a wide range of behaviours and skills valued differently
As society becomes even more global and national borders slowly disappear,
the importance of global leadership increases. Several factors are clear from
this study. Character and performance of organisational leaders appear to be
issues of convergence around the globe with most organisations, regardless of
size or location of headquarters.
A second conclusion – one that mirrors the literature on national culture –
is that while there is a common denominator, there are also noteworthy
differences between organisations depending on various demographic issues,
including the location of the headquarters organisation, or size. These may
stem from differences in cultural orientation or may be due to practices that
have evolved over time.
As organisations continue to globalise, this will make the job of recruiting,
retaining and developing talent even more difficult. Accomplishment of work and
integrity in work may be key issues, but they are clearly not the only skills
or behaviours it takes to make an organisation successful. Understanding what
it takes, and seeking or developing these characteristics, may give some
organisations a competitive advantage.