The world’s fragile economy teeters once again on the edge of the abyss. For those who don’t understand the intricate economic mechanics of how we got to this place, but fully appreciate the impact of any recession from personal experience, it is a scary place.

Some years ago there was an educational research project hosted by the East West Center in Hawaii that looked at the world in 2020. Having done this work the next question in the research string was to ask what kind of leadership would be required to lead effectively in such a world / context. This done, questions were then posed as to what educators needed to be doing today to best prepare future leaders for this leadership.  It was a disarmingly simple line of inquiry but profound nonetheless.

Emerging from the research, four characteristics of a globalization were articulated. Again, they are simple points yet are ones that need to be etched into any leadership template and conversation. They help make some sense of the economic turbulence without offering economic insights and / or specific solutions.  They serve as a reminder of the ongoing context in which we live, conduct business and lead. As general pointers they serve to act as stark reminders of the ‘new normal’ and they help prepare us for the reality in which we need to be asking new questions and seeking new answers. Peter Drucker reminds us that in times of turbulence, the danger is not the turbulence itself but rather the reliance on ‘yesterday’s logic’.

The four  characteristics of globalization are:

1. An expanding emphasis on difference. This insight came as something of a surprise. One would think that the more the world is connected, the more it would look the same. After all, one can travel from Nairobi to Beijing; from Johannesburg to Stockholm; from London to Rio and see similar branding and merchandizing. On the surface things can look very much the same. However, the more things might look the same the greater the need to see and recognize difference – at every level: personal, cultural, artistic, ethnic, generational and structural to name but some of the filters that colour life. Failure to recognize such difference, coupled with an inability or unwillingness to engage difference, often proves fatal. More than ever there is need to intentionally build frameworks of understanding around such differences and then deliberately take the time to assist people within our organizations to move beyond mere coping, to a place of thriving in the midst of difference. I have a colleague who likes to emphasize that the real challenge is not be different ‘from’ each other but, to rather be different ‘for’ each other!

2. An increasing global interdependence. This we know too well! The Euro, dollar, yen and rand are all intricately bound in ways that impact every aspect of national and personal life. The Asian markets sneeze, South Africa catches a cold. The tangible and intangible international connections that transmit and transfer wealth, crisis, information, disease, culture, ideas, images, sounds and life in all its forms, all provide testimony to a quantum reality in which connection forms part of the very DNA of our universe. This doesn’t come as a surprise but it does pose significant challenges to how we think, see and do things.

3. The emergence of increasingly complex societies. All this naturally leads to increasing complexity – at every level. The modern workplace reflects this and the challenges this poses are both real and immediate. The implications of this complexity are that old models simply no longer work. We need to construct new models and explore new ways of thinking if we are to engage the future. This is one compelling reason why leaders and their teams who fail to think and develop systematic frameworks that provide perspective, are simply no match for the future. I am alarmed at executive sessions that I am part of where the ability to think smartly about the adaptive challenges at hand is non-apparent. Increasingly leaders find themselves needing to ‘know what to do when they don’t know what to do’ (an adaptive challenge) and little of what they have learnt by way of formal leadership education prepares them for this challenge.

4. Accelerating non-linear change. This of course comes as no shock to us. However we often seem ill equipped to deal with the non-linear nature of the change being experienced. Change need not be predictable, logical or sequential and when it appears in such forms, we often don’t cope very well.  There is need to better build adaptive intelligence at both a personal and organizational level. This is work that can and should be done. Smart leaders and companies recognize this and are prepared to invest and engage in this vital work. Some of the work I have enjoyed the most in recent years has been in assisting leaders and those they lead engage in this work. It is energizing and the benefits are tangible and real. However, be under no illusion: it is demanding and challenging work.

Building an appreciation of these four characteristics of globalization into one’s leadership and organization is the smart thing to do. They should form the backbone to any worthwhile leadership development or education programme and process. They will play our in different ways depending on the context and situation but one thing is for sure, ignore them at your peril! If it is true that the mind works best in the presence of a question, then the smart place to start might be to ask, ‘what are the questions I (we) need to be asking in each of these four areas?’

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