How international assignments can develop global leadership capacities

In a recent post in The Economist blog Gulliver, B.R. writes that businesses should encourage young employees to take “bleisure” (blending business with pleasure) when they travel abroad, like an extra weekend on one end for personal time. The benefit being that “it might help keep employees’ enthusiasm for a life on the road kindled.” This article rather shortsightedly sees the advantage of “bleisure” simply as retention.

But what do we know about global leadership that would turn this one-sided view on its head?

If a company is sending an employee abroad, there is clearly a global element to the work of the company and thus value in developing global leadership capacity. According to The Global Leadership Challenge (2014) by Black and Morrison, key capabilities of global leaders are inquisitiveness, perspective, character, and savvy. Developing the former two capabilities requires interacting with culturally rich environments and fostering that sense of curiosity.

If this is true, i.e. that inquisitiveness and perspective are vital for global leaders, companies should encourage employees not just to spend a couple extra nights in the hotel to relax, but to get out and explore the cultural ecology of their abroad assignment.

In fact, companies could make it a lot easier to develop global leaders if they did things to foster inquisitiveness and perspective such as,

  • Provide a reading list (or better yet offer to pay for books) about the country/culture they’re working in – these could be historical, cultural, or even novels and poetry popular in that country
  • Encourage them to explore the cultural sites of the city/country
  • Offer suggestions about cross-cultural opportunities or connect them with local cultural informants who might be willing to take them out after work is finished
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Alfama, Portugal

I recently returned from co-leading a short course in Lisbon, Portugal on multicultural and international issues in organizations. The course coincided with the University Forum on Human Resource Development (UFHRD) that took place at Universidade Europeia this year. To prepare, I read several academic articles on Portugal that related to the course’s materials. I also picked up a book about historical Portugese explorations entitled Conquerors: How Portugal forged the first global empire (2015) by historian Roger Crowley. While there, I stayed in a hostel, walked and took public transportation everywhere I went, and visited as many cultural sites and parts of town as I could. During this time, I also asked questions about things I saw and spoke with a variety of people I met along the way.

Was retention a benefit? Sure. I am passionate about my work at the George Washington University. But I also had an opportunity to enrich my curiosity.

In the famous 1939 essay The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, Abraham Flexner, founder of the Institute for Advanced Study near my former home in Princeton, NJ writes, “Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered” (p. 57).

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Lisbon, Portugal

Companies should be encouraging workers to spend a few extra days after an assignment in the particular country abroad not just because it might help with retention, but because doing so may help employees enrich their worldviews and curiosity for the Other. It is this widening of perspectives and deepening of inquisitiveness that will propel the average worker on international assignments to become a global leader.

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