The Times called him ‘the ultimate hybrid’, which sounds rather strange and robotic until you remember that this man does run two of the biggest car manufacturers in the world, Nissan and Renault. But to me he is a cross-cultural wizard. Who am I talking about? Carlos Ghosn, of course!
Carlos Ghosn in Action
So am I just adding to the column inches of all the journalists and even market analysts who have fallen under his spell, even if they don’t quite fall in love with the first mass-market electric car, the Nissan Leaf? Well, I think he is a remarkable example of that new breed of ‘global leader’ and we are going to need many more of those in the future.
Born in Brazil to a French mother and Lebanese father, he spent part of his childhood in Lebanon, then went to study in Paris and started his working life as a trainee at Michelin. I remember when he took over as president of Nissan in 2000, my Japanese contacts (and many others) were predicting failure. There was no way Nissan would accept to play second fiddle to Ghosn’s Renault responsibilities and loyalties. But ten years later, he has surprised them all.
He has managed to avoid a full merger of the two companies, and I do genuinely believe that is not because it wouldn’t be good for the stock price or market share or marketing strategies. Because it might well benefit all of those, at least in the short term. But I think he has listened to his employees and understood the different cultures and the strong sense of identity that each company has. There is no point in creating synergy by enforcing sameness. Instead he shares his time, but I believe above all his listening skills and his enthusiasm, very skillfully between the two companies, navigating easily between the two national and corporate cultures and even languages. He learnt Japanese, which is by no means an easy language, quite late in life.
What other examples of such leaders can you think of? Not many. I am hopeful, however, that the younger generation will think Ghosn’s trajectory is not exceptional, but the norm.
Code switching is a term widely used by linguists to denote the use of more than one language in conversation. My children are already adept code switchers: they will start a sentence in English, finish it in Romanian and throw in a few Greek words too for good measure. I used to think (and linguists in the 50s and 60s agreed with me) that this was a substandard use of language, that it makes children have a ‘smattering of everything, mastery of none’.
Lately, however, I have started to see cultural code-switching as something much more positive. This is the ability to change smoothly from one range of cultural behaviours to another – in essence, being able to operate in multiple environments and adapt to different audiences and expectations. A recent article in People Management referred to it in the leadership context as a ‘seamless gear change’.
Note: we are not talking about lack of authenticity here nor about putting on masks to please all and sundry. Instead, we are talking about someone who is comfortable with multiple languages, cultures, leadership styles, ways of thinking and can therefore act as a bridge and translator between the different points of view. Yes, we may have a default ‘vision of the world’ or a preferred operating style, but the greatest leaders will have a wider repertoire of interpretations and behaviours to fall back upon.
There is one danger here, though. That people will say: ‘We do not know what this person stands for. He or she is not consistent. S/he is a slippery customer. We cannot reduce him or her to just three keywords. S/he is a bit too different…’ And no culture will want to claim you as their own. Unless you are Mesut Oezil, in which case they will be fighting over you.
The word ‘entrepreneur’ was coined back in the 18th century and has since entered our common understanding as ‘someone who risks things in order to purse an opportunity’. It is the backbone of the capitalist society and I associate it with Weber’s Protestant work ethic, although you can have an excellent work ethic and still be short of ideas and passion… and thus not an entrepreneur. Or at least not quite what we imagine an entrepreneur to be. Long live our images of the ‘ideal entrepreneurs’, such as Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, Bill Gates and so on.
However, Stanford Professor Kathleen M. Eisenhardt’s definition of ‘entrepreneurship’ is more interesting: it’s about ‘organising and strategising in disequillibrium’.
Prof. Eisenhardt on Entrepreneurship
Which seems to me to be a pretty good definition of great global leadership. A nascent market, as Prof. Eisenhardt calls new, unproven markets, is very much like a new culture that you are trying to enter. It’s like being taken out of your nice warm bubble-bath and plunged somewhere in the middle of the ocean. In the dark. In a fog. You don’t know where you are, you can’t find your bearings, you can barely make out the sounds around you or know how to interpret them.
Entrepreneurship is all about finding that market, giving it shape and clearly demarcating it. Likewise, global leadership is about finding your limbs when plunged in that ocean, learning to navigate and starting to enjoy the swim.