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Global Leadership: What Is It & How Do We Practice It?

When I mentioned to my new doctor, who is originally from India, that I teach global leadership, she replied, “well that would be a good idea.”  The way she said it suggested that she thought there was a real need for it in the world.  I agree.  Not only are we facing unprecedented challenges such as world-wide war and terrorism, widening gaps between rich and poor, and melting polar fields, to name a few, but our interconnectivity and advanced technologies generate profound possibilities, too.  Imagine if we got really good at mobilizing the best of who we are and what we can do to mend what is broken and to promote the health and well being of all.  This is the promise and potential of global leadership.  

Given that we are embedded in the world we are seeking to influence, global leadership is most effective when it expresses and responds to the unique circumstances of our lives in a context of ongoing action inquiry.  In other words, the practice of global leadership should be grounded in our lived experience–and the values, perspectives and capabilities that come from that experience.  It also should involve a commitment to continuous learning and change that engages this experience in service of our learning and our engagement in the world.  In this way, the study of global leadership has both an inner and outer dimension to it, and any academic study of global leadership should get folded into one’s personal learning journey.  

I refer to this as a lived inquiry.  Borrowing the term from John Heron, lived inquiry is a form of 1st person action research which can be done alone and with others.  It is animated by a compelling question, such as the one posed here: What is global leadership and how do we best learn to practice it?  Like other forms of action research, lived inquiry involves an inquirer or inquirers who are seeking practical knowledge to address real world concerns.  They identify and implement small actions that respond to their animating question.  The experience and insights derived from this action informs future actions through cycles of action, reflection and informed practice.  Given the scale, complexity, and dynamic nature of global leadership, to gain practical knowledge of it, conducting a lived inquiry makes sense.  It sure did for me.

To illustrate what I mean, I share my story about my own lived inquiry in global leadership.  My inquiry began about 14 years ago when I was invited to develop the course Global Contexts for 21st Century Leadership for the new MA in Leadership program at Saint Mary’s College.  As I pondered what to include in this course, I reflected on the question, how can leadership be globally informed and responsive?  In planning this course, my reflections led me to engage my own experience and story of being globally aware.  Some of the facets of my life that played a part included:

  • Growing up in a Mexican-American family and traveling to Mexico often
  • Alert to the consequences of western imperialism and war in various places in the world
  • Being a student of pre- and post-conquest indigenous peoples and societies
  • Being attuned to the issues and efforts of the worldwide environmental movement
  • Traveling and working in Europe, Asia, and South America
  • Working with international students for over two decades.

I found that despite my interests and experience, living in the U.S. gave me a somewhat skewed and limited global perspective.  It seems that part of living in the U.S. is being reminded of our status and stature in the world, which contribute to a U.S. centered perspective of the world.  I realized this perspective needed widening if I was to be more globally aware.  Since developing this initial course in 2002, and to a large part because of it, my animating question soon became, “what is global leadership and how can I best learn, teach and practice it?”

This new question spawned new actions to take, from which important learning arose and in turn generated more activities.  The activities that I have engaged in since 2002 include:

  1. Teaching 21 iterations of the course Global Contexts for 21st Century Leadership
  2. Ongoing teaching with international students, both in the U.S. and internationally
  3. Continuous study of global leadership through books, articles and courses consisting of international students
  4. Co-designing and co-teaching with global partners leadership education programs for international and domestic participants
  5. Writing, researching and presenting on global leadership at conferences worldwide

Important insights have emerged from my own cycles of action and reflection, such as:

  1. Setting aside previously held views and perspectives of globalization, and bringing a fresh and non-ideologically based approach for consideration
  2. Listening and understanding the different stories and perspectives of globalization from different people and parts of the world, such as the Global South and traditional societies
  3. Remaining open and refraining from seeking a definitive or conclusive view of our global context and to see it as a constantly emerging one
  4. Viewing myself as a global citizen as well as a citizen of a particular country
  5. Bringing this emerging understanding into my practice of leadership, and learning from this experience in order to improve upon it–in other words, a living inquiry!

The above insights form the basis of my current understanding of global leadership and how to learn and practice it.  My latest activity in my ongoing lived inquiry is developing an Online Global Leadership Program offered through Udemy.  This program was developed out of the experience of a partnership with Collabriv in which the Saint Mary’s Leadership Center designed, delivered and evaluated a 6 month leadership certificate program in San Francisco for three cohorts of interns who were from around the world.

Global Leadership students

Collabriv Interns from left to right: Remie (Lebanon),
Seyi (Nigeria ), Juan Pablo (Argentina), & Varshit (India)

You are invited to take the course for free and share with me your reflections of your experience.  Your reflections then become part of my learning.  In addition, I invite you to share your reflections of what I share in this post, also to contribute to my lived inquiry.

I also invite you to take up learning global leadership as an active and lived inquiry yourself.  Here are four steps to embark on your own inquiry:  

  1. Identify a question that, if answered, would advance your understanding, learning and/or practice of global leadership;
  2. Create one or two simple actions in response to the prompt to reflect on your own personal story as a global citizen; enroll in our Online Global Leadership Program;
  3. Reflect on the experiences of these actions and note any insights that emerge;
  4. Create one or two more actions that make sense and then repeat steps 1-3!

Remember, the question can evolve as the inquiry does, and it can be done alone and/or with others, e.g. a collaborative inquiry.

One last insight I have gleaned from my lived inquiry in global leadership: Since our world is inextricably linked and interconnected, all leadership is global leadership.  And given the plurality, complexity and dynamic nature of this world, ongoing learning is integral to the practice of leadership.  May you travel well in your leadership learning journey!

About Ken Otter, Ph.D.

Ken Otter, Ph.D.
Ken is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Co-director of the Leadership Center at Saint Mary's College. Areas of scholarship include: global leadership development, leadership coaching education, multi-stakeholder collaboration, collective creativity, and the application of lifespan and wisdom development in organizational life.

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