What is global leadership? Well… how do you measure it?

Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman tells a charming story about being asked the name of a bird by one of his schoolmates. He doesn’t know the name of the bird so the other boy proudly instructs him that the bird is called a Brown-Throated Thrush. Feynman goes on to explain in the video, however, that knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand that thing. Herein lies an important lesson. Knowing the names of things is useful for communicating with others but we must always push ourselves to deeper forms of knowledge and understanding.

Let’s start with definitions. Definitions have always been important for understanding the meaning of words, including tricky concepts like global leadership. But definitions are only part of the picture. Not only that, we’re not even close to having any sort of agreement in the literature on a definition for global leadership (or leadership in general for that matter).

In social science, if we really want to understand a concept like global leadership, we need to ask how the concept is measured. This, of course, is what we call operationalization, which is the break down of a concept that is not directly measurable into small, measurable chunks that together constitute the concept. Concepts that are not directly measurable (unlike height or weight) are called latent traits or latent characteristics.


Take intelligence for example. What is intelligence? You cannot look at someone and measure how intelligent they are. It’s a latent trait. You could look up a definition of intelligence, which might help you understand more what intelligence is. But we won’t really know what we mean by the term intelligence until we break down how we’re are going to assess or measure it. Then, how we measure it will in turn affect how we understand intelligence.

Therefore, if we want to understand a term like global leadership, we must think about how it is being measured.

Bird and Stevens (2013) in their book chapter on Assessing Global Leadership Competencies display many of the different ways researchers and practitioners have thought about measuring global leadership. In some ways, this can be more helpful (but far more monotonous) than reading about exemplary global leaders.

Each operationalization of global leadership in Bird and Stevens (2013) highlights different aspects of what it means to be a global leader. My personal favorite (perhaps because it fits most to my preexisting understanding) is the Global Competencies Inventory (GCI) developed by Allan Bird, Michael Stevens, Mark Mendenhall and Gary Oddou – all longtime experts in global leadership.

I want to highlight briefly the focus on perception management, which is one factor of the GCI and addresses how people approach cultural differences. The dimensions associated with perception management are nonjugmentalness (your inclination to withhold judgment when faced with differences), inquisitiveness (your desire to learn new things), tolerance of ambiguity (how you manage ambiguity in new situations), cosmopolitanism (your interest in current world events and desire to travel), and interest flexibility (the level of flexibility you have in developing new interests or hobbies). And that’s just one of the three factors in this inventory. Aren’t these fascinating?

Once we look at the dimensions, we can go a step further and look at the items for each dimensions. For example, what questions do they ask to understand one’s interest flexibility? Then, thanks to statistical techniques like factor analysis and structural equation modeling, we can understand the validity of those items and how the dimensions are related.

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Example of structural equation modeling from GW course

It is not easy to understand complex latent characteristics such as global leadership. Names, and even definitions are important places to start, but looking at how the concept is measured in the literature will give us a deeper understanding.

The next step, of course, is to look at the complex and diverse lived experiences of global leaders. Qualitative methods such as phenomenology can help us understand in more depth what it means to be a global leader. But that discussion will have to wait for another time.


2 Comments on “What is global leadership? Well… how do you measure it?

  1. Hey Ozzie,

    Really great post. Very enlightening in International Relations | Development. Great suggested reads as well. Ozzie, really appreciate how you bring up the notion of how Leadership should be measured. Find the structural equational modeling to be a bit complex. Is it possible that Leadership is moving in the direction of how States transitioned from GDP Per Capita Rankings to more Human Development notions pioneered by Dr. Sen. I’m curious if you have looked at the Social Progress Index that came out a little while ago, and whether you see Leadership as potentially a new indicator for society.

    How are Global Leaders with a Nation State Doing? Are they contributing to Impact Work? Perhaps its measurements need to be assessed in simpler formats for movement build?

    Liked by 1 person

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