There's a difference between leading a global company and being a global leader. America has a lot of people who can do the former, but not so many who do the latter.
To be successful, any leader of a global corporation has to be brilliant, and master the functional skills they learned in business school. He or she must be a strong communicator and a strategic thinker, and know how to collaborate with stakeholders of all stripes.
But when it comes to leadership style, it turns out that many American leaders of global corporations aren't global leaders after all.
Some 20 years of research by hundreds of experts have found that successful global leaders have great soft skills, At a recent conference on global leadership at Northeastern University, nearly 150 experts in the field came together to discuss the qualities and competencies of global leaders. Their recent combined work still tallies with studies conducted since 1994 in finding, over and over, that the common characteristics of successful global leaders fall into the same soft-skills bucket, like "emotional intelligence," "listening," and "authenticity." This isn't necessarily surprising since "requirements for all C-level jobs have shifted toward business acumen and 'softer' leadership skills," as Boris Groysberg, L. Kevin Kelly, and Bryan McDonald noted in their 2011 HBR article, "The New Path to the C-Suite."
But for C-Level leaders in global organizations, one single characteristic — "sensitivity to culture" (so-called "cultural empathy") — ranks at the very top of the requirement list. This rare quality can't be "taught," or injected simply by working in an overseas office.
Cultural empathy requires a degree of egolessness, because you have to surrender the notion that your country, or language, or point of view is best. Cultural empathy means that you have to not just see through the eyes of someone who is different, but you have to think through that person's brain. True cultural empathy springs from personality, early nurturing, curiosity, and appreciation of diversity.
But, very importantly, it also springs from deep exposure to more than one language. And this is where American executives fall short.
Americans are seriously lagging when it comes to learning foreign languages. Only 19.7 percent of those surveyed speak a language other than English in their households. Contrast this with Europe, where 56 percent of Europeans speak a language other than their mother tongue, and 28 percent speak two foreign languages.
As anyone who has ever learned to speak a foreign language fluently notices how each language shifts one's consciousness. One day, you wake up and you realize you have been dreaming in the new language. Eventually you realize you are thinking in that language. And when you shift back and forth between, say, your native tongue and the acquired language, you feel like you are driving a car with a stick-shift; you are more involved and engaged in the experience. You take in more; you hear more. And you literally feel different; you are "more than yourself."
This is because, on a physical level, your brain is processing things differently than it does when you are operating in only one language. Recent scientific research has shown that learning another language sharpens cognitive abilities and can even ward off some of the effects of dementia. Babies who grow up in bilingual homes are more able to switch their attention and focus on the properties of both languages at the same time. And these babies grow into more focused adults: bilingual people are better at filtering out "background noise."
These findings, combined with those of the experts in global leadership, point to a huge hole in the American educational system — one which has been growing since the 1980s, when educational values began shifting away from the arts and humanities and emphasizing the "hard"-skill stuff — math, science, and, yes, business. Increasingly, the subjects that give students a healthy appreciation for listening (music), global complexity (the humanities) and cultural empathy (languages) have been starved, if not cut off altogether in all but the wealthiest public schools.
Meanwhile, business majors — who now account more than 20 percent of undergraduate degrees — don't need to study the arts, the humanities or languages. To graduate, they have to pass basic, lower-division English composition and a social science course, but that's more or less the extent of it. And since every business professional around the world has (happily for them) been taught to communicate well in English, American business students simply — and arrogantly — assume that they don't need to bother with learning Spanish, or French, or German, or Mandarin, or what have you. (And in a pinch, they can always lazily rely on Google Translate.)
Clearly, in an increasingly globalized world, all this is a huge mistake. No wonder that it's hard to find talented global leaders, particularly in America, a country in which only 30 percent of the population holds a passport. No wonder people in other countries perceive Americans to be "uncouth and obnoxious." No wonder that when list-makers name America's best leaders, they consistently point to PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi, a multilingual Indian woman.
The U.S. has built its economic success on being a place where people around the world come to do business — just riding the New York City subway is evidence enough of that. But in a multipolar world, America can no longer count on everyone doing business its way. If Americans want to continue to lead global companies, they will have to become better global leaders.