The Perfect International Leader? There Isn’t One!

Matthew MacLachlan

1 Jun 2016

Why is it that impressive experience in your home country does not always translate to success when working internationally? Organisations, governments and international institutions find themselves faced with the same challenge – how to find the perfect international leader. Quite simply, the perfect international leader does not exist. 

The Perfect International Leader: The Paradox of Ban Ki-moon

One leader who is experiencing some of the challenges of leading across cultures is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Since his childhood Ban Ki-moon has always struck people for his modesty, competence and perseverance.

It is said that in order to practise English he used to regularly walk several miles to reach a farmer who hosted Americans. He attended university in Seoul and Harvard and his diplomatic career started soon after graduation. In short, Mr Ban’s profile on paper is immaculate, but yet his leadership (and communication) styles are often called into question.

The UN Secretary General: An Example of a Perfect International Leader?

Ban Ki-moom’s way of operating tends to be characterised by discretion and personal meetings away from the limelight

Many of Mr Ban’s American and European colleagues think that his contributions to the UN have been minimal. They also complain that he often becomes an invisible presence in public, especially when compared with his predecessor Kofi Annan.

Unfortunately, they seem to forget about Mr Ban’s successful contributions to issues such as global warming and peacekeeping in Darfur, as well as his position regarding the situation in Gaza.

So why do some people have a negative perception of Mr Ban? Some might suggest that this is caused by his way of operating which tends to be characterised by discretion and personal meetings away from the limelight.

In the end isn’t it all about cultural perceptions?

Mr. Ban is an emblem of Confucian values which are reflected in his modesty and discipline

Interestingly,the former-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Kiyo Akasaka feels that the core reason for this misunderstanding is the cultural perception of leadership.

Mr Ban is an emblem of Confucian values which are reflected in his modesty and discipline as well as his ability to blend in with the crowd in an attempt to establish harmony. These skills are highly valued in certain cultures, and Mr Ban is seen as a perfect leader in the Far East where Confucian values are most prevalent.

The western model of a perfect international leader vs. the Confucian one

Perceptions and expectations about what a global leader should do or say differ greatly from one culture to another.

  • Many Westerners tend to prefer strong and charismatic leaders who lead by example and show strong beliefs and values.
  • Others from Confucian cultures would instead prefer their leaders to have a strong ability to maintain harmony within the group and avoid boasting or taking all of the credit for an achievement.

Understanding some of the cultural traits evident in Mr Ban’s cross-cultural leadership style, we can see why his style may be less appreciated by his American and European colleagues.

Cultural adjustments required on both sides 

Equally, as the leader of an international organisation, Mr. Ban should also adapt his communication and leadership style

However, employees of the UN, a strong and truly international organisation, should adjust their expectations and try to be objective in their evaluation of UN representatives. Equally, as the leader of an international organisation, Mr Ban should also adapt his communication and leadership style and be able to adopt a wide range of manners depending on the context in order to appeal to a bigger audience and be better understood and appreciated.

Mr Ban’s example reminds us that anyone leading across cultures must be aware of how cultural values can shape and influence your own and others’ expectations and leadership styles.



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