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Book Review: Johnson and Oberwise – Developing Global Leaders

Book Review: Johnson and Oberwise – Developing Global Leaders

Book Review: Johnson and Oberwise – Developing Global Leaders

GlocalLdrsDeveloping Global Leaders by Bob Johnson and Rob Oberwise

With the interdependence of the international community and the drive for the reduction of costs leading to the more and more International outsourcing, the need for culturally aware leaders is more important than ever.

In, Developing Global Leaders: A Guide to Managing Effectively in Unfamiliar Places, Johnson and Oberwise have crafted a compact but comprehensive insight into the development of the cultural awareness of future Global Leaders.  Although only some 220 pages in length, this book provides the reader with a rich tapestry of the issues that a leader will face in the International arena and a good selection of tools that can be applied in a variety of situations.

As with all the best approaches to leadership development, this book is filled with case studies and practical observations from the first hand experience of both Johnson and Oberwise. Drawing from over 40 years of their experience, this book is an excellent primer and ready reference for the International Leader at any stage of their career.

Some of the key points that Johnson and Oberwise highlight include:

How difficulty it can be to read cultural cues in a culture to which you are new and unaccustomed. You may be communicating disrespect without even realizing it. So the new entrant into an international become educated in the cultural etiquette of your new country. Give people the respect of addressing them the correct way is a good start and goes a long way to starting to build relationships.

This will allow you to match communication styles to the incumbent workforce and so reduce the likelihood that you’ll cause offense.

Once such area is in underestimating the capability of the people that are now your new senior team.  In a world where international players often have high levels of academic and business education, experience trumps learning.  Understanding the capability of your team and drawing from your own experience to guide them  provides a strong lever to build relations and lead your team to success.

To gain early leverage learn about the influence of the key people in your workforce and harness the power of the ‘local expert’  from your native employees.  This will buy you support and credibility very quickly.

Watching how that ‘local expert’ operates will also help you identify and use the motivation techniques that fit the culture.

If you have ever traveled internationally, you’ll have experienced how attempting the local language can break down barriers with the local very quickly. So learn a few phrases as it gives the impression that you committed to the team. It will then generate and inspire their commitment to you.

As a general approach to working overseas, Johnson and Oberwise suggest you cultivate a ‘QSR’ style. Question, Simplify and Repeat rather than order, complicate and only say it once. This ensures you have the best chance of communicating clearly

The Importance of the ‘Tribe

Cultural differences are often the result of tribal thinking. This is obvious in the middle East with tribal affiliations often being more important than individual needs. In other countries a caste system trumps both authority and individual capability. Often outside connections can influence inside decisions.
So understanding or renegotiating the boundaries can be an important first step in establishing your leadership role.

‘Yes’ may not mean ‘Yes’

Johnson and Oberwise highlight a Shades of ‘yes’ where Internationally a ‘yes’ can sometimes mean ‘no’.
For example, in Japan, you may ask for something that gets the response…‘That might be difficult’.  You must interpret this  as ‘That’s impossible and I have lost face because you have asked me something I cannot deliver’.
In response to this level of ambiguity, Johnson and Oberwise give us 5  ways to  read a ‘yes’ to assess how real a ‘yes’ it is.


The importance of honor and social standing cannot be overestimated internationally. Helping others save face is possibly the most important skill a leader can develop. It requires you to think at a much higher level, considering not only the business solution but the social and cultural impact.


An international leader will need to develop a much higher tolerance for ambiguity and situations where displays of emotion is a  business tactic and can lead to volatile  situations. Control of such situations is a new skill the leader will have to become comfortable with.

Developing an International Instinct

Johnson and Oberwises final chapter encourages the new international leader to refine their instincts and then trust their inner compass. Tailor you instincts to the national and local culture and learn from those who have developed the skill and knowledge in their time immersed in the local environment.


This is the perfect book for the leader that is facing their first international assignment of for the seasoned leader about to move to a new region or country.  Case studies provide interest and illustrate some detailed observations as to the potential problems a new international leader may encounter.  A great primer and resource for leaders in an international arena.

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