16 May 2019 19:15 IST

Geography is now history!

There is no such thing as a Japanese leader, American leader or a Chinese leader — only a leader

I write this from Sydney where, last week, I caught up with an old friend in the business district. As with most global cities today, I was struck by how many nationalities are milling around and by how many languages and accents one hears. This is particularly true in the workplace. As we prepare to move from studies to work, it is almost certain that we will live and work in a global workplace, irrespective of the industry we opt for and the organisation we choose to work with.

Rarely is a workplace so insulated as to be completely local. We will definitely be impacted by global events and will often find ourselves working with global colleagues, clients, vendors or partners. Geography will be history. We may work for a Swedish company, with our biggest client being from Japan, colleagues from the Philippines and an outsourcing provider based in Mexico. It is best to prepare early to be a global citizen and leader. What does it take?

Focus on what is common

The Indian elections are a great example of how politicians want us to focus on what separates us — our religion, caste, income levels, social standing, what we eat and who we marry. But in truth, we all have more in common than we think. Even when we take this to a global level, where we tend to focus on how different we look, speak, dress — again the reality is, we are more alike than different. If only we choose to focus on what is common, we will see it is quite a lot and find we can lead people and situations more effectively.

People everywhere appreciate excellence, they respect discipline, would like to be listened to, want to be recognised. And if we make these qualities our focus, we will find that the differences in language and culture — while they are important, do not control the relationship and the work outcomes.

One of the ways we can best do this is by putting ourselves in the shoes of the other person. This is an important skill to be effective as a global leader. I remember having a conversation with a Japanese colleague and the topic of whaling came up. I remember saying that I was appalled that the Japanese still had whaling runs, while the rest of the world was trying to do the right thing. My Japanese colleague responded by asking “What if my favourite animal was a lamb while you’ve been enjoying your mutton biriyani for years?” I immediately saw his point and it helped me see things from a different point of view. I was still against whaling but I was then able to have a genuine conversation and not be condescending or judgemental.

Avoid assumptions and stereotypes

Last month, I had a little spat with a cab driver who was insistent that people from our neighbouring country are our enemies and deserve death. I couldn’t help but disagree. It’s alright for the politicians to play their games, making us hate each other, but every Pakistani I’ve known has been friendly and kind. In fact, wherever in the world I’ve travelled and had a Pakistani cab driver, he’s refused to take the fare.

I remember a young Pakistani cab driver who once brought me to my hotel from Melbourne airport. We chatted, and everything he said was exactly what I’m sure a young Indian cab driver would be facing. The dream to make a new life in a foreign country, working hard, fighting odds, missing family, sacrificing and sending money home. When he dropped me off, in spite of my insisting, he refused to take the fare. “You are my brother; how can I take money from you?”

Very often we make assumptions, jump to conclusions, fasten stereotypes in our minds; and this comes in the way of being effective leaders and co-workers. We pick up biases and these colour our interactions and decisions. I remember my own bias about people from a particular country being very lazy and having to confront that bias and eliminate when I found how it was affecting the way I interacted with colleagues.

In the movie Frontera, a former sheriff, Roy, is heard talking about the ‘damn Mexicans’ but the movie ends with a different relationship with a Mexican friend when he is forced to confront some of his assumptions and biases. The movie Crash is another great example of how people assume things about people from other cultures, races.

What our Moms tell us

It was Mother’s Day a few days ago and it is almost a Universal Law that Mothers seem to tell their children the same thing all over the world. Respect others — be honest — be kind — share — work hard — keep your promises. In a world where ‘geography is history’, it is these inputs from Mom that could serve us very well. There may be cultural differences in way people greet each other, say thank you, have a meeting, conduct a negotiation — but the essence of human values, stay the same and it is best to hark back to those values when we work and live across the world.

There are several books and courses now being churned out on how to dine and dress and discuss when you are in different countries and cultures but if we stick with the core principles that we are first human before we are Indian or Chinese or American, that we should stay open and not blind ourselves through preconceived notions and that we display the human values that go beyond boundaries we, will find that there is no such thing as a Japanese leader or an American leader or a Chinese leader — only a leader.