Why Is Leading Abroad So Hard?

After reading all the most recent and trendy books on organizational leadership in the global marketplace, you assume it is time to put this new knowledge to work. However, after attempting to master these new skills with colleagues and employees across cultural contexts, you find yourself frustrated. How can someone who is a recognized leader in your field struggle so much with leading across cultures?

Then it happens. Your boss’ boss steps into your office unannounced to praise your achievements and “ask” if you would like to help solve a big problem. This is your chance. You go nearly numb and can later only remember a portion of what she says (best you can tell, you likely passed out during this conversation because your recollection is very limited). What you do remember, succinctly, are the words “Turkey” and “tough situation”. Not wanting to sound shocked or unfit for this challenge, you immediately and confidently accept the pending position abroad. You are about to become an official expat.

It is a couple days before you begin to wrap your head around the idea of leaving your friends, community, favorite restaurant, grocery store, barber, church, etc. The good news is that you only have five days to stress about this impending uprooting and unfathomable challenge. The bad news is that you only have five days to get ready for this impending uprooting and unfathomable challenge. But don’t worry, you’ve been reading those leadership books, right? Just to be on the safe side, you pack the most interesting one in your suitcase and board the plan to Turkey.

Your head is still spinning when the plane touches down and you gaze out the window to your new home. Sure, you didn’t even have time to confirm your cell phone would work for international calls or if there would be an extra charge for calls back home. Your years as a successful leader have taught you the importance of the first impression so you garner what’s left of your fatigued stature and hail a taxi straight to your new office. Upon arriving, you meet the local staff and do your best to remember names while not abusing any international norms and customs.

As the days go by, you begin to see why this branch of the company struggles so much. There is so much animosity toward Western ideology that has brought just too many changes to the workplace. You’ve heard of this, it’s called “us and them”, or at least that is what your MBA professor called it. He seemed to know this topic so well and had answers to all of his hypothetical class lecture scenarios, but this real-life stuff was proving much, much more difficult to navigate. When individual humans are involved, the situation becomes very messy, very quickly, and while everyone looks to you to solve this problem, you find yourself wanting to just disappear into your office or even work remotely from the expat compound outside town.

Your new leadership challenge is only compounded by unrealistic expectations from your boss’ boss, the one who gave you this “promotion”. If you mess this up, you will never get another chance to move up to the C-Suite back home. There is so much pressure, but for the life of you it is unclear why you are not performing at peak levels. Are you really a good leader? Were all your previous assignments easy? You thought you were significant, but now you begin to doubt your ability as a leader, assuming that your past accomplishes were nothing special – anyone could have done that stuff.

If this story sound outlandish or too bad to be true, think again. This scenario could be pulled from the pages of any expat’s history book. It is no secret that both internal and external pressures can cause some to perform at peak levels while others to misstep. These missteps lead to self-doubt, which lead to more missteps via low self-esteem, and the cycle continues. Does this mean someone who thought him or herself to be a good leader is actually not? Not necessarily. If this has ever happened to you (or a similar situation), take a deep breath and realize you are definitely not alone here. Remember that 64%, or nearly two our of every three, global expats fail. We cannot reasonably assume two-thirds of the global workforce didn’t have what it took. No. What likely happened is that they, too, did not receive adequate pre-departure coaching so that when challenges arose abroad, they would be more readily recognized for what they are. Then, once we are able to name a situation, we can then reach into our toolbox and find the correct tool to adjust our attitudes, emotions, beliefs, reactions, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, leadership is tough in a comfortable setting. When placed into a completely different, and possibly very disruptive setting, leaders can simply lose it. This doesn’t mean one is a bad or insufficient leader all of a sudden. The trick is to understand and recognize what is going on, take a deep breath, and reach back to those pre-departure coaching sessions to find just the right tool to tackle the issue of the day. Sure, we know that navigating interpersonal and workplace debacles in a host culture bring especially unique and mind-boggling emotional, spiritual, physiological, and mental demands. Every situation is different and not all of them can be foreseen. But with accurate pre-departure assessment and person-specific coaching, you can greatly increase your likelihood of success abroad. Nail the expat challenge and come home a hero.

Compliments of Go Culture International, a member of the EACCNY