Leading with Intercultural and Global Competence

In a joint effort, the Center for Global Education at Asia Society and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) identified four global competencies students need in order to be successful. These include having the knowledge and skills to 1) investigate the world, characterized by a desire to learn more about the world outside one’s immediate environment; 2) recognize perspectives, characterized by self-awareness and understanding of other viewpoints; 3) communicate ideas, characterized by effective verbal and non-verbal communication with diverse audiences; and 4) take action, characterized by leadership that makes a positive difference both locally and globally (Asia Society/OECD, 2018). Taken together, they define global competence as,

The capacity to examine local, global, and intercultural issues; to understand and appreciate the perspectives and worldviews of others; to engage in open, appropriate, and effective interactions with people from different cultures; and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development. (2018, p. 5)

While educators embed these skills in their curriculum, the corporate world, non-profit organizations, and the government sector increasingly recognize them as business imperatives (Jaquez, 2016). In the field of leadership studies, my particular area of teaching and research, these fields converge, coalescing around the notion that students and business professionals alike need these competencies in an ever-flattening world (Friedman, 2005).

Servant leadership is an action-oriented leadership philosophy grounded in the notion of leading by serving first. It simply begins with a person who possesses a service-oriented mindset. This approach to leadership was most notably articulated by former AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf. In his groundbreaking essay, The Servant as Leader, he asserted, “The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” (Greenleaf, 1977, p. 13). 

Servant leadership differs from conventional leadership styles that tend toward dominance, hierarchy, and self-interest. Rather than a traditional “top down” approach, servant leadership inverts the pyramid. Servant leaders focus on, invest in, and empower their employees, clients, and customers. They strive to meet the highest priority needs of an organization’s most important resource—its people. Spears (1995) conducted a well-known study of Greenleaf’s writings and identified ten characteristics that form the essence of servant leadership. They include Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualization, Foresight, Stewardship, Commitment to the Growth of People, and Building Community

Greenleaf (1977) offered a way to assess the impact of servant leadership. The results speak for themselves, 

The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? (pp. 13-14) 

Interestingly, Spears’ (1995) ten characteristics reflect the skills of globally competent leadership. I believe this is because the origins of servant leadership can be traced back to authentic, culturally grounded, and often overlooked non-Western ways of leading. While Greenleaf contemporized servant leadership, the ideas behind it go back millennia. Historical records indicate that philosophers, writers, and poets from Africa, China, India, the Middle East, and communities around the world, embraced and implemented the principles and practices of servant leadership. The cooperative versus competitive nature of servant leadership in particular resonates with cultures around the globe as “the vast majority of people in our world live in societies in which the interest of the group prevails over the interest of the individual” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 90). Leadership values such as awareness, empathy, healing, persuasion, and building community prioritize collective well-being—resulting in an others-centered style of leading. Examples of servant leaders include Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and many others. Today, servant leaders around the globe are applying these characteristics to help heal a broken world (Mathew, Song, Ferch, & Spears, 2020).

In today’s world, leadership is interconnected, interdependent, and international work. We are increasingly required and privileged to interact and collaborate with colleagues and stakeholders whose backgrounds and experiences may diverge from our own. The costs of intercultural incompetence include workplace misunderstanding, conflict, poor customer experience, unsuccessful overseas assignments, team dysfunction, unsuccessful negotiations and mergers, and managerial failure (Barker, 2020). Success in this endeavor stands as a competitive advantage for individuals and organizations situated in a global marketplace. 

Interculturally and globally competent leaders are open to the influence of diverse individuals, communities, organizations, and systems. Our book aims to widen the lens so that we see leadership practiced in a variety of cultures and communities around the world. Servant leadership is a global leadership philosophy based in wisdom, love, and legitimate power, reflecting the kind of leadership we need to realize a better and more peaceful world.


Asia Society/OECD (2018). Teaching for global competence in a rapidly changing world. DOI 10.1787/9789264289024-en

Barker, K. (2020). Creating change and cross-cultural competence while conducting business on the global stage. Organization Development Journal. 77-85.

Friedman, T. L. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Greenleaf, R. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New Jersey, NJ: Paulist Press.

Jaquez, F. (2016). The global leadership trifecta: Three fundamental skills global leaders should have. TD Magazine. 44-48.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mathew, P., Song, J., Ferch S. R., & Spears, L.C. (Eds.) (2020). Global servant-leadership: Wisdom, love, and legitimate power in the age of chaos. Lanham, MD: Lexington.

Spears, L. C. (Ed.). (1995). Reflections on leadership: How Robert K. Greenleaf’s theory of servant-leadership influenced today’s top management thinkers. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Dr. Philip Mathew is professor of Organizational Leadership and Resource Management at Olympic College. He is the founding faculty of OC’s Bachelor of Applied Science in Organizational Leadership and Technical Management. He earned his Ph.D. in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University. Philip has served with Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins as an online volunteer faculty for students residing in refugee camps in Malawi, Kenya, and Jordan. He is a member of the editorial review board for the International Journal of Servant-Leadership and the Journal of Leadership Studies. He is co-editor of Global Servant Leadership: Wisdom, Love, and Legitimate Power in the Age of Chaos published by Lexington Books.

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