Promises, promises – nomadic leaders in a post-trust age

How can leaders operating across borders bring people together? Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor of organisational behaviour at international business school INSEAD, spoke to Ruth Holmes about leadership in this age of mobility.

Promises Promises - nomadic leaders INSEAD
In the US, there is a belief that anyone can become President. That day came for political establishment outsider and billionaire Donald Trump on 9 November.A day later, award-winning INSEAD associate professor Gianpiero Petriglieri and I met at the CIPD annual conference in a rainy Manchester, where he was to close the annual gathering with a thought-provoking endnote on leadership in an uncertain world.

How did we get here?

For global markets and political leaders worldwide, Mr Trump’s victory for the Republicans was an unexpected upset. For others, it typified the turbulence described by the prevailing VUCA narrative, the win proving that we are indeed living in particularly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times.For business heads today working in a globalised context across national boundaries, 2016’s turmoil calls for a new response. The question is, how can leaders connect with those they are serving when trust and truth are being broken down and redefined, and fear and cynicism are setting in? What kind of leadership would, for example, Mr Trump, do well to deliver?To begin the conversation, I asked Professor Petriglieri how, in the last six months, we have witnessed a resounding Trump victory in the US, while the UK negotiates its exit from the European Union, both after such negative and frequently violent campaigns.

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"There is a tremendous friction between the forces of globalisation and a large number of people for whom that globalisation doesn’t spell opportunity, possibility or progress, but loss, uncertainty and anxiety," observed Professor Petriglieri, a trained psychiatrist who has written and speaks widely on leadership in the global context. "Therefore, they seek to doubledown on the promise of the nation state with its very tight boundaries and narrow definitions of who is in and who is out."It is very important not to underestimate it. But I don’t think it is, as some people say, a failure of globalisation. It is a failure of leadership, of leaders’ ability to distribute the value created by globalisation in a fair and humane way. Many people have no access – whether by choice or not – to its opportunities and benefits, while those in leadership positions profit disproportionately. No wonder we see declining trust."Mobility in the age of discontent For HR and mobility professionals, a sense of equity and fairness has been on the agenda for a while. Some major multinationals have abolished expatriate pay and benefits for their internationally mobile workers. One of the drivers for the rise in localised packages is a sense of equity with local hires as much as the perceived cost savings.Companies are also hiring and training people based on their intercultural sensitivity and so-called global-mindedness. Overall, there is a sense that mobility is a good thing for companies and individuals."In contemporary organisations, especially large ones, you have to be mobile to become a leader," said Professor Petriglieri. "You wouldn’t advise anyone asking how they can progress in their career to stick to one place, whether that place is an office, a city, or a function."We know from research, and from experience, that there are huge benefits to mobility. It enhances your opportunities, expands your networks, and has cultural and psychological benefits, too. It opens your mind."You can see it in business writing. It usually celebrates people who are very mobile – what I call ‘nomadic professionals’. And the reason is that we always celebrate winners. Nomadic professionals are, in many ways, the winners in the modern game of very uncertain and fluid careers."The ultimate privilege in a fluid world of work is to feel that uncertainty spells opportunity," continued Professor Petriglieri. "But if you are one of those people for whom uncertainty spells anxiety, and you look at a successful, mobile person and say, ‘We have nothing in common, I couldn’t be like that, and he or she doesn’t seem to care about me’, then you see that person as a stranger, potentially as a threat, certainly not as a leader."

A post-trust age?

This retreat into the perceived safety of the nation state, the likely dismantling of major regional trade agreements and tightening of border controls taking place in both the UK and the USA, suggests that the narrative of globalisation is being reined back through democratic means. Does it also mean our understanding of leadership needs to evolve to keep pace?In Professor Petriglieri’s analysis, one result of the step back from globalisation is that people are increasingly defined by place, which clashes with the current narrative of global and social mobility. "The disconnect between the global people who are supposedly fit to lead and the rest is only growing bigger," he explained. “And it’s not just an economic disconnect: it’s a relational and psychological disconnect."The way leadership works is that we celebrate the role models and then we move to them; they move us. If we have a society that celebrates the mobile professional but most people don’t have an opportunity to become one, you have a recipe for resentment, not for emulation."Within this breakdown of trust and opportunity, those most able to lead become among those least trusted. This represents a key paradox now for leadership. "The same thing that gives you access to opportunities to lead [mobility] is what makes it harder to exercise leadership," Professor Petriglieri told me.Looked at in another way, people expect consistency and commitment from leaders, while mobility requires them to be open-minded and ready to move on. Yet people want everything from their leaders except that readiness to move on."People want to know their leaders are there for them. So I think that those who have staked their career on being flexible and mobile are often in a difficult situation," says Professor Petriglieri.

No going back?

For the professor, the central issue now is not how we return to trust, but how we make globalisation work better for more people. "Do we really want to return to a world that is extremely homogeneous, and you are in and like us or you are out? I hope not," he says."The question, then, is how we make sure everyone benefits from the opportunity to be part of a mobile, fluid, diverse society. How can as many people as possible benefit, including those who can’t, or won’t, move much?"Both of these questions seem to resonate well with the current diversity and inclusion agenda. Increasingly, people in business today will encounter difference in all its forms. For Professor Petriglieri, retreating from such diversity to a world of clear and homogeneous national cultures is not the only option, despite the surge of nationalism around the globe."The important thing for leaders operating across national borders is to find commonality," he explains. "It isn’t enough to look the same way or be from the same place. You have to find what we have in common. You have to build what we have in common with words and facts."A lot of my work and research are focused on high-potential people and preparing them for leadership roles, as well as independent workers outside organisations. A theme across all that research is that the most successful people cultivate attachments, even in circumstances that tempt them to stay loose, to travel light."These days, you might not belong geographically – fine. What other way can you claim belonging? It might be attachment to a community, a set of values, some specific place. But there is a sense in which they are able to say, ‘Yes, I do move around, yes, I do have this variety of experiences, but this is where I belong. In some way or other, we belong together’."If you reach the point where you are trying to lead a group of people and cannot credibly say in some way, shape or form, 'We belong together', you are not going to lead. You cannot lead if you do not belong."

Taking down walls

For Professor Petriglieri, it is shared futures we look for in our leaders, not necessarily a shared past. "It doesn’t matter if you come from a different place than I come from. Where we are going, we will belong together, we will benefit together. If you can make that argument, then people will trust you. If you break that promise, they won't," he said."Leadership is about having one foot in the present and one foot in the future. It is often frustrating and about living in between. That’s what people want from the leaders: this sense of productive distress. They want them to say, 'Yes, I get the anxiety, but there is hope'."It is open to debate whether or not Donald Trump can reconnect with all those he alienated during his election campaign, and deliver economically and socially for more people with his America First rhetoric.Nevertheless, for global managers and leaders, this ability to connect with people, make a promise, deliver hope, and live with the tension is an equally challenging, and vitally important, task.

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