Cynthia Cherrey speaking at ILA BrusselsLeadership in a Turbulent and Globalizing World

Opening Remarks from ILA’s 19th Annual Conference

Visit the conference highlights page to learn more

by Cynthia Cherrey

Cynthia Cherrey Photo

Cynthia Cherrey is President and CEO of the International Leadership Association. Previously, Cynthia served as Lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and Vice President of Campus Life. She publishes in the areas of leadership, organizational development, and higher education including co-authoring Systemic Leadership: Enriching the Meaning of Our Work. Her most recent publication is Women and Leadership Around the World (co-editor). She is a Fellow at the World Business Academy and a recipient of a J.W. Fulbright Scholarship. Cynthia’s interests and research explore new ways to live, work, and lead in a knowledge driven, interdependent, global society. She consults and speaks to for-profit and non-profit organizations around the world on leadership and organizational change. She can be reached at ccherrey@ila-net.org.

Welcome to Brussels, a city where people from across the globe convene and connect. The synchronicity of choosing this site and the theme Leadership in Turbulent Times all before the terrorist attack occurred in this beautiful city’s airport almost feels prescient. The theme demands of us to be bold in our thinking and actions.

Look around. Here we are — all 1001 of us from 53 countries. From Chile to China, from Israel to Indonesia, from Kenya to Korea, from Pakistan to Peru. And, of course, almost all of the countries in the EU, including the U.K.

We gather here in the heart of Brussels — an international center of politics, business, diplomacy, education, and the arts.

Standing in the heart of Brussels is like standing in the front yard of our global home. If we step inside — a panoramic view of the world opens up before our eyes. We can see all of its joys, its problems, its challenges, its opportunities. It is exhilarating. It is exciting… and terrifying. All we have to do is take that first uncomfortable step to walk through the front door.

Brussels offers us a glimpse in to — and perhaps an insider’s view of — this globalizing world of ours in turbulent times. Each day in this world of ours, as changing political realities unfold in countries around the globe, we struggle to ensure that the abnormal does not become normal to us. Violence and terrorism continue to fester and grow, challenging us not to become numb to the relentless violence.

We live in turbulent times. It is a time of stark contrasts and accelerated evolution in which some want to hold on to the familiar and even return to a nostalgic past. What is needed, however, is fundamental change towards co-creating ways of living together in our increasingly interdependent global home. There is no going back.

We are navigating the uncertain waters of migration and mobility, global trends in finance and big data, technology-driven job loss and job growth, and declines in respect and trust for our governments. All these areas are intertwined — political, social, environmental, technological, and economic — like a huge ball of string.

It might be easy to conclude from the recent events that we are seeing the end of globalization. Liberal democracies are being challenged all around the globe. Countries such as the U.K., France, the U.S., Austria, and Australia have been experiencing growing tendencies toward nationalism. And yet, over the past few decades, governments — in their pursuit of greater domestic prosperity — have orchestrated a massive opening of borders to global trade.

The system that we call the economy — the way we extract, produce, transport, and consume — is now a mega economy that dominates our global society.

Using data from the UN Comtrade Database, Max Galka, a data visualization expert, created this interactive map showing where goods originate and where they end up. Each dot represents one billion dollars in value. The color of each dot indicates the type of traded good, as designated in the key. Click on an individual country to see its role in global trade.

Besides being quite mesmerizing, the map shows how active trade is around the globe and how the import/export trade is concentrated in three main parts of the world: China, which looks like an explosion of candy colored lights wrapping around the Earth; the United States, dominated by a balanced export/import trade with its neighbors to the north and south; and the European Union, with Germany (the #1 exporter to 17 EU countries), France, and the U.K. driving trade in the region.

Economies have benefited hugely from global trade. However, it is also true that not everyone benefits equally from globalization. Older, less skilled populations have seen their opportunities diminish because of globalization. Younger professionals that are more skilled have benefited from much greater opportunities, but have struggled with suppressed wages.

What we are witnessing is a new role for governments — a reframing of globalization, as Mansour Javidan and I refer to it in our 15 June Interface article. Instead of focusing on opening borders, governments are being pressured to focus on helping those who have not benefited from globalization. As a result, instead of seeing the end of globalization, we are witnessing an evolution of the role of governments where they will become more aggressive in encouraging foreign investment and in supporting their local economies.

It is paradoxical and complex. It is leadership in turbulent times.

In the 20th century we had increasingly complicated problems. In the 21st century we have increasingly complex systems that amplify problems. Today leading is exponentially more difficult and challenging than leading was in the past. We need a better way of understanding leadership, and its meaning for the 21st century.

Leadership in a Globalizing World

The study of global leadership is an emerging field of research. Today we have data from the World Economic Forums, the United Nations, and, specific to leadership, research studies such as the GLOBE project and the Global Literacies study (Rosen, Digh, Singer, & Phillips, 2000). The research studies vary, but all have a focus on capabilities related to developing a global perspective or “global acuity.”

Global acuity is the understanding, experiences, and insights of working, living, and leading in a global society. Many of us know this is important. But it is hard work to develop a global understanding. One of our ILA group members, the Center for Creative Leadership, in a research study (2009) found that 86% of senior executives believe it is “extremely important” to work effectively across cultural and geographic boundaries in their current leadership role. Yet, only 7% believe they are “very effective” at doing so (Yip, Ernst, & Campbell, 2016).

The ILA has a globally active membershipworking across multiple cultures and countries. In our 2015 member survey, members shared with us that 54% work in two or more countries with 13% working in six or more countries.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “I work with a program that is focused on leadership development in my local community. I don’t need a global perspective.” Today, that is simply not true. In this hyper connected world of ours — no matter where you live or what you do — having a global mindset is essential.

Having a global mindset helps you see and make connections. It helps you see how the individual in your community program connects to the organization and how the organization connects with other organizations. It helps you see how your local community is located in a region within a country and so on. The boundaries are blurred and permeable. The local context is part of a larger context, all nested like Russian dolls, one in the other.

Cynthia Cherrey Speaking at ILA BrusselsToday’s leadership requires an understanding of multiple and diverse cultures, engaging and influencing those different from ourselves and searching out diverse perspectives. We may be more connected, but that does not mean we are well versed in the diversity of the world. The world may be flat in terms of technology and interconnectivity, but it is still quite bumpy in the sense that people in different organizations in different areas of the world work in very different ways.

We need to find ways to continue to learn, to expand our understanding of others, and to influence individuals and organizations that are unlike ourselves. It is difficult. It is uncomfortable. And yet, with discomfort often comes new awareness and new learnings. New ways of thinking. New ways of doing. New ways of being. All of which, in turn, can lead to new ways of leading. New ways of thinking about, researching, and practicing leadership.

The ILA is a great place to grow your global mindset. The ILA provides a framework and a space for those different from ourselves to come together to develop the relationships and the networks that promote a deeper understanding of leadership knowledge and practice and create new knowledge for the greater good of individuals and communities worldwide.

In addition to doing this work at our global conference — we do this work virtually through our online community, ILA Intersections, our Leadership Perspectives webinars, and our ILA publications. In a forthcoming volume of our Building Leadership Bridges series, Leadership and International Development, experienced leaders in international development are writing narratives describing how they have experienced gender, context, culture, and sustainability as drivers. In part two of the book, the book editors are creating a new leadership model from the ground up, out of an analysis of those narratives. The model will focus on leading international development projects. It’s a perfect example of the cycle of practice to theory to practice.

The ILA was founded on a fundamental belief that those who study leadership should look beyond the ivory tower to people doing work in the trenches, and that those who practice leadership should be versed in various leadership theories and models that could inform their work. The ILA is distinctive in that it does its work at the nexus of theory and practice —theory informs good practice and practice informs good theory.

We also do this work through our global, topical, and regional conferences and events — bringing professionals together from different sectors, disciplines, cultures, and countries to ask the difficult questions and address the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Our work with our partners and projects bring together the best from across the globe to work on the big questions and initiatives. This upcoming year the ILA is proud and privileged to partner on regional and topical events with the Møller Centre at Cambridge University, NASPA, the University of Pretoria Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership, and the Universidad del Pacífico.

With a focus on women’s economic empowerment the ILA, along with our Salzburg Global Seminar colleagues are supporting the World Bank’s competition on women’s entrepreneurship. The prize winners from around the globe will be recognized at the World Bank spring meeting in Washington, D.C. and the ILA will be there to cheer them on and extend an invitation to present their ideas at one of our regional conferences.

I invite you to…

Journey with us to Cambridge in May 2018, where the ILA will join our Møller Centre colleagues for The Power of Purpose 2.0. The event will bring together, for the second year, CEOs and leadership scholars to address the question: How do we know if having purpose makes a difference in business?

At the end of May, take the trip to South Africa to the University of Pretoria where we are addressing the theme of Next Generation Leadership including the ongoing struggle of higher education in Africa and the refugee and migration crisis. The theme purposefully links to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its 17 global leadership challenges facing next generation leadership.

From there travel to Salzburg, Austria in late June to join up with our NASPA colleagues to bring together leadership scholars, university presidents, and vice presidents in a global summit around the question: What do the leadership models of the future look like in the changing landscape of higher education?

ILA’s topical and regional events wrap up in August at the Universidad del Pacífico in Lima, Perú where conference participants will examine the Dilemmas of Leadership in Latin America.

It is important in this globalizing and turbulent world that the ILA and its members play key roles in building bridges of understanding across the globe in our leadership research, teachings, and best practices. When we do so, we have geometric multiplying impacts: making the connection to each other; making the connections to people and ideas; and making the connections from one network to other networks.

It is the power of partnerships and networks. It has an impact on individuals, institutions, communities, and societies. And it starts here — in Brussels — in this space of the ILA conference.

When you walked in the room, greeting old friends and introducing yourself to new friends — you may or may not have noticed the music in the background. That was not solely background music, it was music performed by Michael Jones, a longtime ILA member. The music is from his CD Deep Song and was inspired and composed at past ILA global conferences.

Michael wrote words to correspond to the notes in Deep Song, an excerpt being:

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was song. Deep Song is the natural music of the forests, woods, lakes and hills. Music that will make us rich and make us full. In times of turbulence and sudden change and when things are falling apart — leaders will be called again to listen for their own deep song. And in the song to hear the promise upon which a new and more resilient centre of gravity can be formed.”

We are here to listen — to listen to each other and to learn from each other. The richness of our learning is through this collective space — stepping into the uncomfortable — being together at the ILA global conference — bringing together diverse and different voices.

This morning I am suggesting a way to frame our time together by listening, giving ourselves permission to be uncomfortable, and learning from each other.

At the close of our conference, ILA Board member Éliane Ubalijoro will serve as our weaver — weaving a common core experience — for us to remember and to reflect upon our time together before we go our separate ways on Sunday.

So, at this ILA global conference with the theme of Leadership in Turbulent Times, may each of us:

  1. Listen to each other.
  2. Step into the uncomfortable.
  3. Learn from each other.
  4. Listen to our own deep song.
  5. And become profoundly more resilient in our leadership and as leaders in these present and future turbulent times.

Thank you.


Rosen, R.H., Digh, P., Singer, M., & Phillips, C. (2000). Global Literacies: Lessons on Business Leadership and National Cultures. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Yip, J., Ernst, C., & Campbell, M. (2016). Boundary Spanning Leadership: Mission Critical Perspectives From the Executive Suite. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.