6 Ways a Foreign Language Enhances Your Global Leadership Skills

Emma Buckby

6 Oct 2016

Good leaders are in demand now more than ever. With companies growing internationally and working across multiple time zones, languages and cultures there is a pressing need for a new type of leader.

But what type of leader is required in this new world? You’ll have heard no doubt the phrase global leader, i.e. a leader comfortable working with different nationalities, communication styles and motivations?

Did you know that speaking a foreign language can enhance your global leadership skills and help you to become a global leader?

Global Leadership Skills: What makes a Global leader?

Skills that would have served leaders well in a domestic market are simply no longer enough. Global leaders need an enhanced range of skills to manage the diverse needs of global team members, employees and other business partners whose business dynamics and motivations may be very different to those back home.

Language skills are just one skill that a global leader must possess to become a true global leader. Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Nissan-Renault, is often cited as the perfect example of a global leader as a fluent speaker of four languages.

Let’s take a look at how language skills can increase your global leadership skills

1. Languages enhance leadership skills

Many organisations recognise that doing business in a common language is a good policy for reducing misunderstandings. However, fewer organisations recognise that global leadership skills reach far beyond a leader’s ability to speak that language. Speaking more than one language enhances leadership skills by expanding the way people communicate and the way they are perceived by their audience.

2. Different perspectives

The article also recognises the challenges monolinguists face due to their limited language skills and how this can impact their global leadership skills

There are a number of ways that speaking another language gives the speaker a broader world perspective. Communication is much more than content, or what people say. It is also about context, or how people say things. For example, in some languages, descriptions are very literal. Others are more emotional. This may have an influence on how to appeal to people – through facts or feelings.

People think in different ways. In an article published by Forbes, many aspects of speaking another language were explored. It also recognised the challenges monolinguists face due to their limited language skills and how this can impact their global leadership skills.

3. Language challenges

Speaking more than one language enhances leadership skills by expanding the way people communicate and the way they are perceived by their audience.

Unfortunately, the USA – a land where more than 99% of it population traces their origins to another country and usually another language – has lost one of the most valuable assets necessary for today’s global leaders: the ability to speak more than one language.

Forbes raises the point that many US Americans spoke German until the First Word War, where German speakers were treated with suspicion. The German language was suppressed. Language skills and their suppression were institutionalised.

Comparing the US to Europe, language deficiencies become apparent, with Forbes highlighting that only 18% of Americans speak another language in addition to English. More than half of Europeans speak more than one language.

4. Centricism

Monolinguists may also use linguistic or culture-centric references that would have little meaning beyond their national borders. In the case of the US, many US-specific sports references are used in business, which are lost in translation, sometimes even with other English language speakers.

There are a number of ways that speaking another language gives the speaker a broader world perspective

“Hail Marys” mean nothing to Europeans or anyone else. This has immediately diminished their message. If it was a global leader, their effectiveness has also been diminished, even if the message was just what their team or business partner needed to hear.

5. Dealing with ambiguity

Language skills also teach context and how to deal with directness or ambiguity. This skill comes from both the words available in a language as well as how they are used.

Forbes illustrates these points well. For example, in languages where a word has more than one meaning, the skill of being able to see things from more than one perspective become necessary.

So does the ability to work things out in context. Speakers of languages that are more precise may be frustrated when the other speaker is ambiguous in their communication style. The ambiguous speaker may consider the precise speaker to be too direct or rude or judges that they cannot see their point in context.

Good leadership, especially with language skills, would benefit from understanding the origin of why these communication styles differ and can explain these differences from more than one perspective.

6. Language and culture

Language skills also teach context and how to deal with directness or ambiguity.

Leadership skills in a global business also require cross-cultural understanding. Speaking more than one language is an excellent way to learn not only new words but also to learn about new cultures. The more leaders learn different ways to communicate, the more they also learn how to empathise and get the most out of their very valuable multilingual and multicultural teams. They become equipped to be global leaders.



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