Three Steps to Becoming an Elite Global Leader

Global business leaders are in high-demand, and while it may seem like a spot in the “global elite” is out of reach, a decade-long study shows that despite its name, this is not an exclusive group. In fact, you are just three steps away from gaining the cross-cultural perspective you need to join the ranks.

Thunderbird School of Global Management Professor Gregory Unruh, Ph.D. and George Mason University President Angel Cabrera, Ph.D. are research partners and co-authors of Being Global. They recently wrote an article for Harvard Business Review that lays out a three-step action plan for working your way into the global elite – and for making the best of your status once you get there.

According to the authors, you must first, acquire the knowledge, skills and perspective you need by both thinking and doing. Second, make use of your new global awareness by exploiting divergence, convergence and networks. And third, transcend the boundaries of commerce to become a global citizen, ensuring your work serves the world in positive ways.

The research by Drs. Unruh and Cabrera shows that a do-it-yourself mindset is key. Only a third of companies responding to an American Management Association survey in 2011 reported having programs in global leadership development. However, 76% of executives surveyed by the United Nations Global Compact say that it’s important for companies to develop global leaders. That means you need to push for assignments that deepen your international knowledge, and often you will have to migrate from company to company to round out your experience.

Specifically, you can become an elite global leader by learning to observe, study, and open your mind and heart to other cultures. You need to actively forge relationships, collaborate with people who are different from you and make sure that you work to move to the center of your network by connecting others. You also need to travel internationally and learn a foreign language.

Once you’ve broadened your horizons, start noticing the differences among markets and use those observations to create value. Keep an eye out for commonalities – for example, widespread appetite for a certain type of product. Use the connections you made before joining the global elite to find the right customers and suppliers, to link hiring managers with the best people for their staffs, and to encourage far-flung divisions to work together.

Becoming a member of the global elite isn’t entirely about the bottom line, the researchers insist leaders who are truly global citizens understand the implications of their actions and take responsibility for them. As such, they strive to make certain their work, their decisions and their leadership ultimately have a positive effect on the world.  

For more on entering the global elite, check out the full version of this article in the May 2013 edition of Harvard Business Review at

About the researchers

Gregory C. Unruh is a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Ángel Cabrera is the former president of Thunderbird School of Global Management and current president of George Mason University. They are the coauthors of Being Global (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

About Thunderbird School of Global Management

Thunderbird is the world’s No. 1-ranked school of international business, with nearly 70 years of experience in equipping global leaders with the business skills and global mindset necessary to create sustainable prosperity worldwide. For more about Thunderbird, visit


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About Us

Thunderbird School of Global Management is a No.1-ranked school of international business with nearly 70 years of experience in developing leaders with the global mindset, business skills and social responsibility necessary to create real, sustainable value for their organizations, communities and the world. Dedicated to preparing students to be global leaders and committed global citizens, Thunderbird was the first graduate business school to adopt a Professional Oath of Honor. Thunderbird’s global network of alumni numbers 40,000 graduates in 147 nations worldwide. The school is sought out by graduate students, working professionals and companies seeking to gain the skills necessary for success in today’s global economy.