Five Qualities of Successful International Leaders

Published: May 20, 2015

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By Yadvinder Rana

More than 1,000 studies have been conducted in the last 60 years in an attempt to determine the definitive styles, characteristics, or personality traits of great leaders. However, none of these studies has provided a definitive profile of the ideal leader.

Likewise, studies that have tried to assess the influence of culture on leadership behavior and effectiveness have failed to define a single set of indicators that render a person a leader in an international context.

Nevertheless, research has confirmed that five universal traits are recurrently, even if not always, associated with effective leadership across cultures.

1. The ability to establish trust-based relationships

The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is a key competency for international leaders. We can categorize trust according to two main dimensions:

  • Cognitive trust: con?dence in the ability and competence of others.
  • Affective trust: faith in the trustworthy intentions of others.

Even if trust propensity varies across cultures, research confirms how, during international encounters, trust doesn’t develop slowly through steps, but is likely to be established, or not, right at inception. This is why the first interactions are critical to establish trust-based relationships.

2. Self-awareness

According to research, a high self-awareness score is one of the strongest predictors of executives’ overall success. Knowing our strengths and abilities allows us to identify the gaps that need to be filled. The best leaders continuously work to build up their strengths and improve their weaknesses. Furthermore, they tend to hire complementary subordinates who perform better in domains where the leader is weaker.

3. Self-control

Self-control can be defined as the ability to channel one’s emotions into appropriate behavior, overruling one’s initial pattern of response in favor of another. Managers who display an ability to control and channel negative emotions exhibit an aptitude to tolerate stress, frustration, irritation, provocation, adversity, delays, and pain. Self-control becomes even more crucial in a global, uncertain, and complex context. The ability to control and channel emotions can be practiced. Self-control is like a muscle that can be trained and strengthened by regular exercise.

4. Intellectual curiosity

Curiosity is defined as the desire to learn or know about something or someone. Curiosity drives the acquisition of new information and the creation of new connections, and, despite popular wisdom, curiosity is a learnable personality trait. It can be cultivated and developed like any other competency. Challenging conventional assumptions, and trying new routes, calls for two fundamental preconditions:

  • Self-confidence: the belief in one’s own capabilities, skills, experiences, and knowledge.
  • Courage: the ability to persevere and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty; the willingness to take risks, express one’s own opinions, and experiment.

5. Emotional strength

Dealing with people with different behaviors, traditions, values, and norms in unfamiliar and unpredictable situations can be highly demanding and stressful, and it requires a certain level of emotional strength.

Emotional strength has four dimensions:

  • Resilience: the ability to bounce back after embarrassment and criticism.
  • Coping: the ability to deal with unfamiliar and stressful situations.
  • Spirit of adventure: the degree to which one seeks uncomfortable and ambiguous situations.
  • Sustaining and restoring energy: learning to sustain and restore one’s physical, mental, and emotional energy is a key leadership quality. Global leaders need to be disciplined in their food, sleep, and exercise intake. Furthermore, they need to adopt rituals that can reduce anxiety and stress and improve focus, emotional stability, and confidence.

About The Author

Yadvinder S. Rana is Professor of Cultural Management at the Catholic University in Milan, Italy, lecturer on intercultural negotiation and influence in leading international business schools, and founder of Neglob, a management consultancy firm that assists companies in international negotiations and global teams performance improvement. For more information about Rana and his new book, The 4Ps Framework: Advanced Negotiation and Influence Strategies for Global Effectiveness, please visit