Gratitude: The Secret Weapon for True Global Leadership


One problem international business people often face is coordination between a global headquarters and a local national office. If communications break down, a true global leader should be able to repair it. What type of “global leader” do you think this person would be?

I naively used to think of successful global leaders as “superhuman” leaders of international organizations—experts on international affairs who spoke fluent English and rubbed shoulders with world leaders. Through my experience below, that image of mine crumbled, and I developed a sense that a true global leader was not so really unattainable.

In April 2016, we invited Mr. Masao Torii, President of Boehringer Ingelheim Japan to teach a special four-class course entitled “Global Leadership Development Program" for the English MBA Program at GLOBIS University.

Approximately 32 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.

A Passion for Learning starts with listening and an open mind

The big change happened in the third class. Mr. 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. From the Q&A, what the students learned about effective global leadership can be summarized into the following:

Characteristic #1: They have a passion for learning. Because they want to learn, they listen. Closely. Eagerly. Intensely.

Characteristic #2: Through their listening, they can develop a deep of understanding of the local situation (of the subsidiary) from both a local and global (HQ) perspective, and vice versa.

Characteristic #3: Given their understanding of both the local and the global, they can create an optimal management strategy—built upon a historical perspective, knowledge of the market, and ability to access available resources—striking a balance that both the headquarters and subsidiary can agree upon.

Characteristic #4: Given their knowledge and skills above, they utilized their own personality—displaying, say, courage, integrity and trust—to dare to forge a solution acceptable to both headquarters and subsidiary alike.

Essential to all of this was the first characteristic: the 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 that they had a deep recognition of why they are here in Japan and what was necessary for this subsidiary. The global leaders from Japan leveraged their experiences working overseas and participating in headquarters meetings: acting in ways common in Japanese business culture while also understanding the perspectives of the global headquarters. Perhaps unusually, they went out sociably for lunch with non-Japanese and gave a confident image gathering intelligence and fostering personal connections.

Through the class Q&A, it was apparent that skills (understanding international situations, management knowledge, cross-cultural communication) alone did not make a global leader. The four characteristics above could be condensed into daily awareness (Characteristics #1, #2, and #4) and action (characteristic #3). Rather than superhumans, students realized that this pursuit of awareness and action was something achievable for them as well.

Become Leaders That Connect Different Spaces

So, where does Ki fit into this equation?

Ki, a spiritual energy permeating the universe, would acknowledge that bringing together diverse nationalities and skills is nothing but 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 and 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 related in the following way. Ki is the waves of awareness and intent that humans emit. The body is the physical existence. Global leaders hold awareness and intent needed to bring together two separate spheres of influence. By grounding their physical bodies—their literal selves—the Ki waves become entrusted with physical properties. Try thinking of them as being lightning rods on top of buildings. Global leaders pass information between two separate spaces, for example, the sky and ground being company HQs and Japan. Just as lightning is repeatedly attracted by the lightning rods, it is much easier for this information to flow through existing channels than for new ones to always be created.

So, if experienced global leaders are like lightning rods, or conduits of information transfer between HQ and subsidiary, what separates the good leaders from the great ones? Let’s look closely at the mental state of truly effective global leaders. This is different than mere awareness or intent. Given two leaders with differing mental states, in which persons would the information flow more easily, more effectively, providing more meaning and added value?

Let me give an example from my Aikido experience. When throwing a training partner, you can choose to throw them with aggressive intent or with gratitude. I 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 the communication across the global business.

Whether working in HQ or a local office, global leaders need to be able to understand the situation around them, starting with listening and curiosity (Characteristic #1). Then, they should direct that awareness globally, to understand the perspective from a space where they are not (Characteristic #2). Skipping a step, they should have the courage and commitment to connect together different spaces and build solutions (Characteristic #4). Great leaders take Characteristic #4 a step further by implementing gratitude in their connections.

By doing the above, you can achieve awareness: three of the four characteristics of global leaders Mr. Torii taught in his course. What is left is action—acquiring the international affairs knowledge, management expertise and experience, and cross-cultural skills necessary to build the optimal cross-border solution.

While global leaders are not supermen or superwomen, their skills are developed through gradual hard work and commitment built up over time.

If they have gratitude as they build those skills, I believe they can become those rare global leaders who have the ability to effect positive change and fulfill the promise that multi-cultural diversity demands. The Ki in them elevates their awareness and action, and connects the best intentions of all of us.

Editor’s note: On July 1, 2016, Mr. Masao Torii became President of Novartis Holdings Japan.

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