Here Be Paradox: How Global Business Leaders Navigate Change

Advances in Global Leadership

ISBN: 978-1-78754-298-3, eISBN: 978-1-78754-297-6

ISSN: 1535-1203

Publication date: 26 November 2018


Although managing global change is one of the key competencies demanded of global leaders, it is one of the most under-researched topics in the field (Lane, Spector, Osland, & Taylor, 2014). This chapter shares findings from a recent qualitative study that examined how global business leaders navigate complex global changes. Data were collected from 23 global business executives working for 20 unique global enterprises, in 12 different functions, through a pre-interview participant qualifying profile, an in-depth semi-structured interview, and follow-up verification. Findings reveal that global business executives are contextual leaders who juggle both global task and global relationship complexities. The paradox is the process they employ to navigate continuous change, enabled by sensemaking. Finally, as agile learners, they prove that the global leadership capabilities required to navigate paradox can be learned.



Nelson, J. (2018), "Here Be Paradox: How Global Business Leaders Navigate Change", Advances in Global Leadership (Advances in Global Leadership, Vol. 11), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 3-30.

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Ancient mapmakers reputedly used the Latin words hc svnt dracones (here be dragons) and a picture of a dragon on their maps to indicate unexplored and potentially dangerous waters for early explorers (Dempsey, 2012). Today’s global leaders operate in an increasingly fast-changing, complex world, and they must navigate the unknown without labeled maps or sophisticated GPS systems. Globalization has resulted in increased international trade, enhanced information flows, diasporas, and a greater dependence on the global economy, as well as dramatically changing the context in which leaders operate today. Lane, Maznevski, and Mendenhall (2004) have observed “Globalization is a manifestation of complexity,” and it flows from the conditions of multiplicity, interdependence, ambiguity, and constant change (p. 4). Studies show that there is a shortage of global leaders and that most organizations are concerned that this lack of global leadership skills may threaten corporate performance and continued business growth (Black, Morrison, & Gregersen, 1999; DDI, 2015; Deloitte, 2015; Ernst & Young, 2012; Ghemawat, 2012; IBM, 2010; Mercer, 2017; PWC, 2012; World Economic Forum, 2013, 2015).

Global leadership as a field is still fairly new – emerging in the mid-1980s, taking hold in the 1990s, and growing rapidly today (Mendenhall, Li, & Osland, 2016). Increasing interest in global leadership from both the research and practice communities has given birth to a new subfield in both international management and international human resource management (Mendenhall et al., 2018, p. viii). As a young research field, it has also experienced “growing pains” – lack of a construct definition, underconceptualization of global leadership, and fragmented research agendas and sampling criteria (Reiche, Bird, Mendenhall, & Osland, 2017). Ironically, Lane, Spector, Osland, and Taylor (2014) have asserted that managing global change is one of the key competencies demanded of global leaders; however, leading change in the global context is one of the most under-researched topics in global leadership. As Osland, Ehret, and Ruiz (2017) noted, “the omnipresent need for agility in transnational firms and the high demands of both task and relationship complexity in global change initiatives make this particular domain of global leadership ripe for study” (p. 43).

Similarly, paradox research is also rapidly expanding. Ford and Brackoff (1988) define paradox as “some ‘thing’ that is constructed by individuals when oppositional tendencies are brought into recognizable proximity through reflection or interaction” (p. 89); Lewis (2000) characterizes paradox as both a framework and an inquiry. In the most recent special issue on paradox, Smith, Erez, Jarvenpaa, Lewis, and Tracey (2017) posit that the time is right to further enrich theories of paradox, change, and innovation. Most of the research on paradox has focused on the organizational level, but microfoundation/individual-level research on leaders is now starting to emerge (Waldman & Bowen, 2016). Within that subset of research, to date, very little research has focused specifically on global leaders and paradox. Empirical studies to date include Osland’s (2000) study of expatriate paradoxes and Fredberg’s (2014) study of Global CEO’s approach to managing paradoxes.

Literature Review

This study focused on the intersection between two constructs, global leadership and change, situated in two contexts, globalization and globally integrated enterprises (GIEs). These four elements framed the following brief literature review.


Globalization is defined as “a multidimensional process whereby markets, firms, production, and national financial systems are integrated on a global scale” (Brawley, 2011). In contrast, Lane et al. (2004) defined globalization as “a manifestation of complexity” that “flows from the conditions of multiplicity, interdependence, ambiguity and constant change” (p. 4). Keohane and Nye (2000) posited that globalization is the growth of “globalism” and that it is important to examine the shift from “thin” globalization to increasingly “thick” globalization. They attributed the expanding thickness of globalization to (1) the increased density of interdependent networks, (2) the increased velocity of communications at the institutional level, and (3) the increased transnational participation across distances and cultures (Keohane & Nye, 2000). Numerous scholars have asserted that globalization is not new, and it is intensifying in terms of pervasiveness, complexity, interconnectedness, and frequency (Black & Morrison, 2014; Evans, Pucik, & Bjorkman, 2002; Friedman, 2005; Gundling, Caldwell, & Cvitkovich, 2015; Keohane & Nye, 2000; Osland, 2003).

Lane et al. (2004) opined that globalization is defined by structures and best managed by processes and people. Organization structures have also changed as corporations became more global. Marquardt, Berger, and Loan (2004) identified four progressively more complex stages of organization structures: (1) domestic, (2) international, (3) multinational/multiregional, and (4) global. Characteristics of Stage 4 global structures include global business strategy; significant competitors; large, worldwide markets; mass, customized product and process engineering; globalized least cost production; mixed centralized/decentralized organization structures; and critical importance of cultural sensitivity (Marquardt et al., pp. 136–137). Palmisano (2006) describes these organizations as GIEs or “a company that fashions its strategy, its management and its operations in pursuit of a new goal: the integration of production and value delivery worldwide. State borders define less and less the boundaries of corporate thinking or practice” (p. 129).

Global Leadership

Global leadership is grounded in the recent phenomenon of globalization, and many global leadership scholars have their roots in international management rather than in traditional leadership (Osland, 2015a). Global scholars indicate that the field of global leadership is just 25 years old (Black & Morrison, 2014; Javidan & Bowen, 2013; Maznevski, Stahl, & Mendenhall, 2013; Mendenhall et al., 2013). Yukl (2013) points out that social scientists have defined leadership in terms of the portion of it that interests them rather taking a holistic view. Similarly, global leadership is challenged by numerous and often confusing definitions. Mendenhall, Reiche, Bird, and Osland (2012) argue that “the lack of a precise, rigorous, and commonly accepted definition of global leadership limits the field’s conceptual and empirical progress” (p. 493). Reiche et al. (2017) define global leadership as “the processes and actions through which an individual influences a range of internal and external constituents from multiple national cultures and jurisdictions in a context characterized by significant levels of task and relationship complexity” (p. 556).

In keeping with this perspective on global leadership, Mendenhall and Bird (2013) identified two key elements: complexity and boundary spanning. They described globalization as “intense, extreme complexity” that involves the dynamic interplay of four drivers: multiplicity, interdependence, ambiguity, and flux. Flux is also described as “rapid, unpredictable change in many directions” (Lane & Maznevski, 2013, p. 14; Osland, 2015b, p. 5). The second dimension, boundary spanning, consists of the creation and navigation of linkages and networks across economic, functional, geographic, cultural, linguistic, religious, educational, political, and legal systems. Mendenhall et al.’s (2016) recent review of the literature found more than 600 scholarly works published since 1990, most in the last 10 years. They identified that there is (1) a continuing need to rigorously operationalize global leadership definitions and typologies; (2) a predominance of articles on culture, competencies, job analysis, expert cognition, and development; and (3) a need to broaden global leadership research into new emerging areas.

The global leadership typology (Reiche et al., 2017) is the first attempt to start building a global leadership theory, and it examines task and relationship complexities to more precisely conceptualize global leadership roles: “Working from the assumption that leadership depends on the context in which it occurs, context constitutes a critical contingency factor that determines specific global leadership roles and their requirements” (Mendenhall & Reiche, 2018, p. 395). The task complexity dimension focuses on both the variety and flux within work tasks. The relationship complexity dimension focuses on the number and variation of boundaries and interdependences (Reiche et al., 2017, p. 556). The global leadership typology also illustrates the competing priorities and dynamic tensions of different global leadership roles. The authors strongly recommend that the typology should be used in sample selection to enhance clearer understanding of research results and limits on generalizability.

Global Change

Change is one of Marquardt and Berger’s (2000) twenty-first-century global leadership transformations; they posited that the world is shifting rapidly from a Newtonian mindset to a quantum world of chaos (pp. 15–16). Brown and Eisenhardt (1997) found that many computer firms compete by changing continuously, and they reported that change is “frequent, rapid, and even endemic to the firm” (p. 3). Chia (1999) observed that organizations are more comfortable maintaining stability and orderliness, rather than the paradox of flux, movement, change, and transformation; he advocated rethinking change as a dynamic, transformative process, noting that “Change, surprise, and unexpected novel outcomes are the sine qua non of living systems” (p. 224). Tsoukas and Chia (2002) went even further, asserting that change is pervasive in organizations and reframing change as “organizational becoming.”

Worley and Mohrman (2014) argued that traditional change management may be obsolete, and disruptive change is the new normal. Pasmore (2015) asserted that most change efforts fail because most change methods are built to deal with single, linear changes, not the fast-moving, complex, simultaneous, technology-intertwined, global changes that bombard leaders today. Unfortunately, leaders’ ability to respond has not kept up. “We need to get better at leading complex, continuous change, and we need to do so as quickly as we can” (Pasmore, 2015, p. 14). What makes complex, continuous change different is balancing multiple priorities, integrating efforts, not exceeding capacity, and broader and deeper engagement.

Lane et al. (2014) defined global strategic change as “strategically aligned alterations in patterns of employee behavior across national boundaries” (p. 232). It differs from domestic or intracultural change due to four key variables: context, distance, time, and focus (business context); culture is further defined as a boundary condition. Williams (2015) described the actual work of global change agents as leading by crossing internal and external boundaries, busting boundaries, transcending boundaries, and building bridges. Osland et al. (2017) commented, “Boundary spanning skills like these are dictated by the global context and the nature of global work and intercultural collaborations” (p. 45).

In the Center for Creative Leadership’s recent study of global leadership gaps, Leslie (2015) found that change management is one of the top five leadership skills in terms of both importance and leadership deficit. In her review of global leadership change, Osland (2013) posited that culture, both the predisposition to change and how change itself are viewed and managed, is an important element. She concluded that “The research on global change leadership is more anecdotal than empirical and therefore warrants further study” (p. 213). Lane et al. (2014) asserted that managing global change is one of the key competencies demanded of global leaders; however, leading change in the global context is one of the most under-researched topics in global leadership (p. 229). Osland et al. (2017) also commented:

Perhaps not all global leaders have to be, by definition, change agents; nevertheless, the omnipresent need for agility in transnational firms and the high demands of both task and relationship complexity in global change initiatives make this particular domain of global leadership ripe for study. (p. 43)

In the introduction to their special issue on paradox and change, editors Louart, Durant, Downs, and Besson (2006) asserted, “In the context of organization change management, paradoxes – with their underlying ambiguities and unstated assumptions – are vehicles for advancing our understanding of change processes” (pp. 421–423). Paradox also abandons the notion that change is smooth, linear, and planned (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1997; Lewis, 2000, p. 760).


Global leadership is characterized by complexity and competing priorities, hence the importance of paradox. Smith and Lewis (2011) defined paradoxes as “contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time” (p. 382), and they found that paradox is also integrative and dynamic. Schad, Lewis, Raisch, and Smith (2016) stressed the two core characteristics of paradox: contradiction and interdependence, asserting that “paradoxes intensify, as contemporary organizations and their environments become increasingly global, fast-paced and complex” (pp. 6–7). Smith, Lewis, and Tushman (2016) describe today’s leadership as a form of dynamic equilibrium that balances three interdependent and contradictory tensions: today versus tomorrow, within versus across boundaries, and shareholders versus broader stakeholders.

Waldman and Bowen (2016) described a paradox-savvy leader as one who effectively handles “(1) paradoxes that are inherent in the practice of leadership in terms of agency and communication and (2) paradoxes that are inherent in terms of the ‘now’ and ‘next’ demands of sustained organizational effectiveness” (p. 318). While paradox scholars have addressed the disruptiveness of globalization, to date, most of the research on paradox has been at the organizational versus the individual level of analysis (Schad et al., 2016; Waldman & Bowen, 2016). Recent individual-level studies have focused on Danish middle managers (Lüscher, 2012; Lüscher & Lewis, 2008), leaders in a US hybrid public–private organization (Jay, 2013), global CEOs (Fredberg, 2014), top leaders in five hypercompetitive organizations (Lewis, Andriopoulos, & Smith, 2014), business unit leaders (Smith, 2014), Chinese supervisors (Zhang, Waldman, Han, & Li, 2015), individual microfoundations in US, UK, Israel, and China firms (Miron-Spektor, Ingram, Keller, Smith, & Lewis, 2017), and Singaporean public sector leaders (Soon, Yan, & Bolden, 2017). Of note, (1) there is no one common theme; (2) while paradox scholars talk about the disruptiveness of globalization, little research has been done with global leadership populations; and (3) most of the research is qualitative, as new measures and assessments (Miron-Spektor et al., 2017; Zhang et al., 2015) are just beginning to be published.

In one of the first quantitative studies, Zhang et al. (2015) defined paradoxical leadership behaviors (PLB) as “Leader behaviors that are seemingly competing yet interrelated, to meet competing workplace demands simultaneously and over time, […] dynamic and synergistic approaches to contradictions in organizational management” (p. 539), and they developed five empirically validated five PLB measures: (1) self-centeredness and other-centeredness; (2) maintaining both distance and closeness; (3) treating subordinates uniformly and allowing for individualization; (4) enforcing work requirements and allowing for flexibility; and (5) maintaining decision control and allowing for autonomy.

Research Design and Methodology

The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine how senior executives in global business enterprises navigate change. Change in this study had three elements: experiencing change, understanding change, and leading future changes. Therefore, the primary research question was: How do global leaders navigate change? The secondary research questions were: (1) how do global leaders experience organizational change, including paradox? (2) how do global leaders report that they understand the changes that they have experienced? and (3) how do global leaders translate this understanding into the future organizational changes that they lead? Given the extreme complexity, interdependencies, multiple boundaries, and frequency of change (flux) cited by the global leadership literature, this study examined change through the lens of paradox theory. Heeding the “growing pains” of earlier global leadership research, Reiche et al.’s (2017) definition and global leadership typology were used to qualify, select, and understand global leaders with different roles.

This exploratory study employed a basic qualitative design and interpretative analysis. Participants were selected in two steps. First, organizations were selected that met Palmisano’s (2006) definition of a GIE. Second, within these targeted organizations a snowballing technique was used to identify potential participants who met the following criteria: (1) have at least 10 years of full-time work experience, with at least five years of experience in a global leadership role; (2) hold a senior leadership role in their company, as denoted by the title of “director,” “executive,” “general manager,” “vice president,” or “president;” (3) currently hold a job requiring leadership of cross-border business activities and management of multicultural teams; (4) have experienced a major change; and (5) have current or past experience leading a global change.

Data were collected in three ways: (1) a pre-interview participant qualifying profile; (2) an in-depth semi-structured interview; and (3) follow-up verification, which are detailed in Table 1. In addition to open-ended questions, two measures were employed. First, in the participant qualifying profile, each global leader was asked to self-report on his/her global leadership role, using a checklist constructed from the Global Leadership Typology (Reiche et al., 2017). Second, in the interview, participants were asked to discuss their experiences with each of five specific of PLB, using the Zhang et al. (2015) measures, as well as identifying any additional paradoxes that occur in their global roles.

Table 1.

Data Collection.

Process Data Collected
Pre-interview participant qualification survey
  • Introductory letter and participant consent form

  • Name and demographic information

  • Countries of residency for at least six months

  • Total years of full-time experience

  • Total years of full-time global leadership experience

  • Current job title and description of current job

  • Self-assessment of global leadership role using the Global Leadership Typology

  • Profile of the global organization in which they are currently employed (industry, 2015 total revenues; country where headquarters is located; percent of revenue earned outside of headquarters country)

  • Three open-ended questions (1) is there anything special about your global organization? (2) is there anything special about the organizational changes/paradoxes you are currently leading? (3) is there anything unique about you global leadership journey?

Interview protocol
  • Introductory comments and definition of global leadership

  • Q1: Your background and experiences as a global leader?

  • Q2: Tell me about organizational change in your company.

  • Q3: Describe a significant change that you led/are leading.

  • Q4: What did you learn from this experience?

  • Q5: How did you understand or make sense of the experience?

  • Q6: Going forward how did you translate this experience?

  • Q7: Specifically describe tensions or paradoxes embedded in these changes? Is there a term your organization uses?

  • Q8-12: Specifically explore each of Zhang et al.’s (2015) five continua of paradoxical leadership behavior?

  • Q13: Anything else about paradoxes that comes to mind?

  • Q14: Anything else we should discuss and why it is important?

  • Copy of transcribed interview emailed to each participant for review

  • Participant edits, additions, and deletions were added to the final transcript

As illustrated in Table 2, the study participants included 23 global executives, working for 20 unique global enterprises, in 12 different functions, across 18 different industries. While most participants worked in the United States, the headquarters of their organizations were located in seven different countries, and all study participants managed employees in multiple countries. The companies varied in size, with 2015 total revenues ranging from US$ 150 million to US$ 150 billion. Study participants also reported that their firms’ percentage of sales outside of the headquarters home country ranged from 28% to 90% of 2015 total revenues. Participants reported an average of 24.3 years of full-time work experience, with a range of 10–50 years. Participants also reported an average of 11.0 years of global leadership experience, with a range of 5–30 years.

Table 2.

Study Participants.

Participant Pseudonym Industry Title Function Work Location Gender GL Type
1 Thomas Automotive VP Prod mgt China Male 3
2 Robert Telecom GM Bus P&L USA Male 3
3 Sean Insurance VP HR USA Male 4
4 Tina Medical devices GM Bus P&L USA Female 3
5 John Automotive VP Engineering USA Male 4
6 Kris Water technology VP HR USA Male 4
7 Ben Online retail VP Operations USA Male 4
8 Stefan Biotechnology VP Operations USA Male 4
9 Padma Pharmaceutical VP Proc improve USA Female 4
10 Marie Public relations Chairman Consulting USA Female 4
11 Molly Consulting VP Operations USA Female 4
12 Jane Oil & gas Dtr. Manufacturing USA Female 1
13 Adam Financial services Sr. Dtr. IT Canada Male 2
14 Allen Biotechnology VP Finance USA Male 4
15 Rina Banking Sr. Dtr. IT USA Female 3/4
16 Michael Hotels/hospitality VP Learning & development USA Male 4
17 Rich IT VP Prod mgt USA Male 4
18 Pia Healthcare Sr. Dtr. Marketing Brazil Female 3
19 Matt Medical devices CMO Marketing USA Male 4
20 Felix Software Sr. Dtr. Sales USA Male 3
21 August Healthcare VP HR Germany Male 4
22 Ted Hotels/hospitality VP Learning & development USA Male 2
23 Chad Int’l shipping VP HR USA Male 3

Notes: Bus P&L, business profit and loss; CMO, chief marketing officer; Dtr., director; GL, global leadership; GM, general manager; HR, human resources; Int’l, international; IT, information technology; Proc improve, process improvement; Prod mgt., product management; VP, vice president. GL Types; GL-1 indicates incremental global leadership; GL-2 indicates operational global leadership; GL-3 indicates connective global leadership; GL-4 indicates integrative global leadership.

The interviews were recorded and manually transcribed. All forms of data collected were initially analyzed manually, but the analytic process was expanded to include MaxQDA11 software to organize the large volume of data. The analysis was organized in several steps. First, the researcher holistically reviewed the individual transcripts and created memos. Next, themes and codes were assigned to describe, categorize, and interpret specific elements across the data. Graphs and matrices were used to visually make sense of the findings and to further distill the findings and conclusions. This chapter focuses on five specific findings related to navigating change and paradox.


Finding 1: Global business executives differed by context and mix of both task and relationship complexities. While research on global leadership has been growing rapidly, key scholars have reported that research is fragmented and samples are not tightly defined, thus slowing the development of global leadership theory (Osland, Li, & Wang, 2014). One explanation for these gaps is the lack of sufficient discussion on the context of leadership. Osborn, Hunt, and Jauch (2002) asserted that “leadership and its effectiveness, in large part, are dependent upon the context. Change the context and leadership changes” (p. 797). Similarly, not all global leadership roles are the same (McCall & Hollenback, 2002). They can, however, be contextualized and categorized based on differences in tasks and relationships.

Using the global leadership typology (Reiche et al., 2017) as a framework to analyze the data across the 23 global executives participating in this study, 13 self-reported as integrative global leadership (GL-4), six self-reported as connective global leadership (GL-3), two self-reported as operational global leadership (GL-2), and one self-reported as incremental global leadership (GL-1). One leader was conflicted, reporting herself as both connective and integrative global leadership. This study found some differences, described in the following section, based on self-reported global leadership roles (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. 
Participants’ Self-reported Global Leadership Role Using the Global Leadership Typology

Fig. 1.

Participants’ Self-reported Global Leadership Role Using the Global Leadership Typology

The numbers of participants for incremental (GL-1), operational (GL-2), and connective (GL-3) global leadership were too small to warrant analysis; however, the large number of self-reports of integrative global leadership (GL-4) made it possible to report focused findings, as shown in Fig. 2. Among participants who self-reported as connective global leadership (GL-3), most participants shared in the interview that their roles had the same complexities, challenges, and changes as the integrative global leadership self-reports; however, they were the number two executive rather than the top executive for their global organization or function. The Global Leadership Typology dimensions of task complexities and relationship complexities were useful to the participants as they explained their roles and to the researcher in analyzing and understanding the data.

Fig. 2. 
How Integrative Global Leaders Report Their Global Roles, Global Change, and Paradoxical Leadership.

Fig. 2.

How Integrative Global Leaders Report Their Global Roles, Global Change, and Paradoxical Leadership.

Finding 2: Global business leaders are paradox-savvy. Waldman and Bowen (2016) characterized a paradox-savvy leader as one who effectively handles the paradoxes that are inherent in the practice of leadership. In the opening question of this study’s participant interview, the global leaders were asked to describe their leadership journey, with specific emphasis on global leadership roles. At the end of the interview, participants were asked a question related to each of the five PLB continua developed by Zhang et al. (2015).

Content analysis revealed that no participants reported using the term “paradox” but paradoxes were continuously present in all their roles – evidences of paradox were shared in from their early lives, educational choices, early career choices, and subsequent jobs. They also experienced the paradox at the individual, team, and organizational levels of leadership as described in Table 3. In addition to levels of paradox, several participants stressed that their paradoxes are overlapping and multiplicative, as described by Sean, a vice president of human resources in a global insurance company:

There are several paradoxes that I face in my current role. First, there are country and regional differences in the way that markets perform, regulatory frameworks, customer preferences, etc. Second, there are the obvious language, customer/cultural, and political, socioeconomic differences. Third, there are differences in HR practices and leadership norms and capabilities. Finally, there is inherent complexity in our business models, e.g., we own publicly traded subsidiaries that have their own boards, management teams that may or may not agree with the parent’s perspective on various issues, etc. (Sean, GL-4)

Table 3.

How Global Leaders Describe Paradox: Individual, Team, Organizational.

Dimension Representative Participant Quotes
Individual paradox I feel that healthy tensions from all directions is what keeps me upright. Otherwise I’m leaning in one direction or the other, but at least that’s how I find myself in a happy place with these tensions that will otherwise drive me crazy. I do believe they help (Rina, GL-3/4).
Team paradox It’s not being political, it’s being politically astute. I mean, you have to have diplomacy skills […] It’s the gas and the brake. I mean, you have to be able to read people and bring people along. There’s a nimbleness that you need. You can’t be too rigid. I mean, it’s like sometimes you have to be really tough, and sometimes you have to be really flexible (Chad, GL-3).
Organizational paradox It’s one thing to develop a product quickly but it’s another thing to tell the world that you have that product, to convince the world that this product is good and show people that this product has some value and will solve your problem (Robert, GL-3).

These global leaders also reported that they experienced all five of the PLB continua from the Zhang et al. (2015) study, and they were able to describe how these PLBs showed up in their respective global work settings. They also identified additional global :: local leadership paradoxes beyond the five leadership behaviors in the Zhang et al. (2015) study, such as the global–local paradox described by the two leaders as follows:

It’s flexible to the local market, not flexible to a global standard, or how do you do both, okay? Flexibility in different places means different things. And so, understanding and balancing local market to global standards in this arena is really important […] “So, what I had to figure out was, how do we meet both, because Lord knows the people in [US HQ city] weren’t going to change. And, I wasn’t going to change the people in Mexico. So how do I make it work? And so, to me, making it work was listening to everyone and understanding them. (Molly, GL-4)

Trying to find the right balance between completely single and global products that are engineered collectively at the same time with a global team versus some regional engineering. There’s a fine line there because we don’t ever want to go back when we’re completely regional engineering teams […] that was very inefficient. And we’ve got a dispersed a global organization that is tremendously efficient and we come up with much better solutions. So trying to find the right balance of continuing the global connections but still allowing some flexibility and freedom to regional teams to engineer or tailor the products for the market in that region is important. (John, GL-4)

Again, the findings analysis was segmented by the Global Leadership Typology self-report. The integrative global leadership (GL-4) participants reported the widest variety of paradox leadership behaviors, as well as more detailed stories of paradox in their settings. Additional paradoxes articulated by the global leaders included global–local paradoxes, differing time zones and distances, cross-cultural differences, intra- and industry challenges, short- and long-term time horizons, and differing measures of success. Table 4 summarizes the five PLBs, as well as the additional global paradoxes reported by the executives in this study.

Table 4.

Reported Findings of Paradoxical Leadership Behaviors and Additional Global Leadership Paradoxes.

Paradoxical Leadership Behavior Continua (Zhang et al., 2015) Additional Global Leadership Paradoxes Articulated by Participants
  • Self-centeredness and other-centeredness

  • Distance and closeness

  • Uniform treatment and allowing for individualization

  • Enforcing work requirements and allowing for flexibility

  • Maintaining decision control and allowing for autonomy

  • Global and local balance (time zones, distances, cultures)

  • My industry and other industries (interindustry challenges)

  • Global and local business challenges (headquarters, regional, in-country)

  • Short-term and long-term perspectives and decision-making (time horizons)

  • Making a profit and contributing to society (sustainability)

Note: All study participants confirmed that they had experienced all five of the paradoxical leadership behavior continua that were reported by Zhang et al. (2015).

Finding 3: Global business executives report that change is continuous and the paradox is the process they employ to navigate these changes. In the middle portion of the interview, which accounted for the greatest amount of discussion time, participants were asked both macro and micro change questions. First, they were asked a macro-level question, that is, to describe the overall philosophy of change across their organizations. While only some of the participants were able to articulate an official organization philosophy, approach or model of change, all 23 participants quickly acknowledged that change is continuous in their organizations. Further, participants explained the context for the continuous change: a dynamic world, globalization of business, technology changes, market changes, and organizational changes. Table 5 presents participants’ perspectives about continuous change.

Table 5.

Change is Constant and Energizing.

Change Descriptor Representative Participant Quotes
Change is constant
  • Change is constant. We live in a world which is dynamically changing. People are changing. Businesses are changing. Technology is changing (Rich, GL-4).

  • [Company] seem to thrive on it and need a constant state of change. They are not afraid of change (Jane, GL-1).

  • The environment we are in, there is a lot going on. There is a lot of change in every area and in every field (Kris, GL-4).

  • Change is one of the strengths of this organization (Pia, GL-3).

  • Change is actually the life blood of any organization (Marie, GL-4).

  • Change is the only constant and it’s driven by two things – the market and our organization size and complexity (Matt, GL-4).

  • Change is 80% of what I do – with my peers, with my direct reports, with the functions that do not report to me (Stefan, GL-4).

  • We have been in a constant state of change since 2010 (Sean, GL-4).

  • We are constantly trying to reinvent ourselves. It’s kind of like, even if it’s not broken, let’s try to fix it (Allen, GL-4).

Change can be energizing
  • This organization thrives on change. They love it; they embrace it fully […] The exciting part is I have not seen another organization that fully embraces change at all levels (Rina, GL-3/4).

  • There was an opportunity to improve which excited me. I wasn’t looking for just a regular opportunity (Chad, GL-3).

  • I’ve been a catalyst for change. I’ve been one of the biggest advocates. We are keeping the place dynamic and trying new things (Marie, GL-4).

These findings are consistent with research on continuous change (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1997; Chia, 1999; Tsoukas & Chia, 2002). The findings are also consistent with more recent research by Worley and Mohrman (2014), who asserted that traditional change management may be obsolete, and disruptive change is the new normal.

Next, participants were asked to describe a significant change that they had led or were in the process of leading and to explain in detail both the change and what made it significant for them. Table 6 provides a snapshot of three representative changes, including both the change led and the competing tensions.

Table 6.

Representative Quotes of Significant Changes Led.

Significant Change Representative Participant Quotes
Fix existing product platform and design new products Everyone wants to be working on the new shiny objects or the new product, which is going to bring revenue, versus working on existing products by making them more robust and stronger (Rich, GL-4).
Create a centralized simplification strategy and sustain a decentralized organization If your vision is you want every employee to simplify, you don’t create a mammoth central organization that is going to simplify on behalf of everybody. So rather than creating a big simplification organization, let us create a movement where simplification becomes a lifestyle, a mindset for every employee in the company (Padma, GL-4).
Leveraging both a local and global strategy Determining strategically what work we’re going to do where, then working cross-functionally to create a plan to attract, grow, train. This is a team of people that really don’t have an automotive culture or an automotive background. But creating the shell of an organization that mirrors global principles but is unique in the sense that the way that leadership works in China is a little bit different to the kind of top-down way that it works in the US […] So creating ways of training, coaching, people working together (Thomas, GL-3).

As part of the study analysis, each of the 23 changes was deconstructed to identify (1) the specific problem to be solved; (2) representative paradoxical tensions described (A :: B); and (3) how the leader resolved them. Fig. 3 portrays one participant’s change story. Padma (pseudonym), a newly appointed Vice President of Simplification, was tasked with creating a new cost-reduction function in a decentralized scientific organization spread across 80 countries.

Fig. 3. 
Padma’s Story of Navigating a Global Change.

Fig. 3.

Padma’s Story of Navigating a Global Change.

For global leaders, issues can emerge from many different sources, singularly or in multiples. As the leader wrestles with these tensions, the competing paradoxes become clearer, and the global leader draws on his or her own sensemaking and learning to create a significant change outcome. Consistent with Lüscher’s (2012); Lüscher & Lewis, 2008 and Jay’s (2013) studies in domestic organizations, a paradox becomes the vehicle for change versus continuity. In contrast, in each of these global leaders’ stories, there were at least two tensions: (1) continuity :: change; and (2) global :: local. There were also additional paradoxical tensions, unique to each story. Fig. 4 presents a global leadership process model that was created from the findings. In the model, issues emerge from everywhere: the external global environment, the global organization, the local organization, and the global leader his or herself. The global leader wrestles with multiple problems to be solved, and oscillating tensions given rise to competing paradoxes. As the global leader recognizes and reconciles the competing paradoxes the outcome emerges. Through each stage of the model, the global leader uses sensemaking and learning agility; the model is also bidirectional, as global change is not always forward moving. Consistent with Smith and Lewis (2011), the model also shows that paradox and change are integrative and dynamic.

Fig. 4. 
From the Findings: A Global Leadership Process Model on Navigating Change by Navigating Global Paradoxes.

Fig. 4.

From the Findings: A Global Leadership Process Model on Navigating Change by Navigating Global Paradoxes.

Finding 4: Global business executives are also global sensemakers. Weick (1995) posits that complex situations cause people to “chop moments out of continuous flows and extract cues from those moments” (p. 43). When a cue is extracted from the general flow of stimuli, it is “embellished” and linked to a more general idea, most commonly to a similar cue from one’s past (Weick, 1995). Weick and Ancona likened sensemaking to cartography and map making (Ancona, 2012; Weick, 1995). However, sensemaking is not about having the right map, it is about creating the map. Ancona (2012) has described sensemaking as one of four core leadership capabilities (along with relating, visioning, and inventing) for contemporary complex, uncertain, and dynamic environments (p. 3). She further asserted that sensemaking is an emergent activity; it can be grouped into the following activities: exploring the wider system; creating a map of that system; and acting in that system to learn from it. Creating these maps enables leadership activities (pp. 3–6).

The second research subquestion was How do global leaders report that they understand the changes that they have experienced? Following the participants’ description of their significant change, they were asked how they came to understand or make sense of what was occurring, as it was also a new situation for them. In their answers, three different aspects of sensemaking emerged: (1) the content of their sensemaking; (2) the processes that they used to make sense; and (3) the context of the sensemaking. Participants utilized and described 25 distinct sensemaking processes, both individual and group-oriented, that they used. These processes were both retrospective and prospective. The techniques were used individually or in combination with each other. Table 7 provides several representative quotes about sensemaking that were shared by the study’s participants.

Table 7.

Representative Quotes of Sensemaking Processes Used by Global Leaders.

Process Participant Description Representative Participant Quotes
Self as the sensemaking vehicle Sell myself first Make sure that number one, I could believe in it. If I have to go sell it, I have to sell it to myself first. So, I had to get orientated by really going into the teams, understanding how things were done, what the results were, and just get grounded on that first (Matt, GL-4).
Reflect Self-reflection Most nights I stay late and I think about my day and I think about what was discussed, what was said. I do reflect. And sometimes when I reflect, I realize perhaps I could have done this thing better or that thing better […] take steps to move in that direction (Adam, GL-2).
Strategy Create big picture For all the years that I’ve worked, I filled out that big picture, figured out the piece that I’m responsible for and how it fit into the big picture (Rina, GL-3/4).
Who does/does not support Being able to understand where your support is and where your support isn’t and spend time where your support isn’t to try to better understand why that’s the case (Allen, GL-4).
Direct communication Listen a lot Listen a heck of a lot. Listen more than you speak and really try to make sense out of not just what’s happening in terms of the work, but why are people behaving the way they are? (Molly, GL-4).
Span boundaries Benchmark other organizations I also had some experience outside Latin America. When I went to Europe, I studied what I could do better there. I was benchmarking and trying to shape our decisions that we made at that time (Felix, GL-3).
Date and tools Use operating mechanisms How do you set up your meeting cadence and your reviews so that time zones can be optimized, and you’re not having people, if you can avoid it, up at 11:00 at night calling into meetings in another country? So it takes a lot coordination (John, GL-4).

Note: The study reported a total of 25 different participant descriptions of sensemaking. This table shows selected participant quotes.

Context also informed the sensemaking activities of these global leaders, as shown in Table 8, where the 25 sensemaking processes are arrayed utilizing Osland, Taylor, and Mendenhall (2009) global sensemaking scale. Osland (2010) related different types of sensemaking reported by expert global leaders to the characteristics of the global context based on earlier research by Lane et al. (2004). It was also possible to organize the data from this study in the same fashion. Table 8 illustrates that these global leaders also reported Osland’s sensemaking activities. Furthermore, the global leaders utilized multiple and overlapping types of sensemaking. The findings from this study align closely with Osland’s earlier work (2010) and extend it to a new sample of global leaders. Sensemaking was a key finding reported in Lüscher’s (2012 and Jay’s (2013) paradox studies, and this study also extends their findings to a new population – global leaders.

Table 8.

Global Context and Global Leader Sensemaking.

Sensemaking Process Description from Study Participants Global Leadership Sensemaking Scale (Osland et al., 2009)
Complexity Multiplicity Interdependence Ambiguity Flux Cultural Variation
Self as the sensemaking vehicle Sell myself first X X
Pay attention X X X X X
Stand back X X X X
Shift perspective X X X X X
Tough situations X X
Reflect Self-reflection X X X X
Reflect on company X X X X X
Strategy Create big picture X X X X
Be forward looking X X X X
Pick your team X X X
Does/doesn’t support X X X
Pivot as you go X X
Direct communication Listen a lot X X X X
Ask questions X X X X X
Explain the change X X X X X X
Work through resistance X X X X X
Bottom line it (on/off) X X X
Span boundaries Network X X X X X
Learn the cultures X X X X
Benchmark other organizations X X X
Combine groups X X X X X
External resources X X X X
Data and tools Use data X X X X
Use tools X X X X
Use operating mechanisms X X X X
Use experiments X X X X

Finding 5: Global business executives are agile learners, and they prove that the global leadership capabilities required to navigate paradox can be learned. The third subquestion in this research was What did you learn as you were leading this change and how have you applied this to future changes? Some of the changes had been completed; some were still underway. Nevertheless, all study participants reported ongoing learning and focused more heavily on how they learned versus what they learned. Table 9 provides selected comments about their learning.

Table 9.

Representative Quotes of Selected Learning Approaches Used by Global Leaders.

Approach Description Representative Participant Quotes
Learn from self Be open to learning I think that my number one learning is be open to change. Be open to learning new things. Be open to adapting and doing things in your ways or different ways (Rich, GL-4).
Learn from experience Learn your role Learn when to be a cheerleader, to know when to be the coach, to know when to be the person that drops the hammer and says no, and all the rest of it […] sort of figuring out your role and what you need in the team as well (Sean, GL-4).
Learn from others Listen The biggest learning for me was the need to listen and truly understand what people were thinking, and listen to a point where they felt like I was listening to them, and that they could be open with me. Not just have to reply, just because I was the president of that division (Allen, GL-4).
Learn from a framework Create a system We did a lot of knowledge management. We tried to make sure that with each country that was being carved out, we learned more and refined our operating model and made it replicable (August, GL-4).
Learn from gaps and mistakes Learn from your mistakes quickly If something was not working well, I had to stop and change right away. And, to get a better organization, I made some mistakes. It’s important to learn from your mistakes, and you need to change quickly (Felix, GL-3).
Unlearning Leaders have to be open-minded when they’re going to a new organization […] For me working in [Company 2], I had to unlearn a lot of things from [Company 1] and learn a lot of things related to the new culture of this biotech company. And, that gave me a beautiful launch pad coming into [Company 3] (Padma, GL-4).
Learn because of the global context Get out of headquarters, travel One really important learning I got by moving out of [headquarters city] […] that you have to visit and you need to travel (John, GL-4).

Note: The study reported a total of 29 different participant descriptions of learning. This table shows selected participant quotes.

Participants reported that they learned from themselves, from experiences, from others, and from the world around them. Six different learning approaches and 29 different learning techniques emerged and are summarized in Table 9. Consistent with earlier findings, the integrative global leadership participants (GL-4) shared the most robust, the most diversified, and the most integrated learning approaches.

These findings around learning are consistent with earlier research by McCall and Hollenback (2002): “People learn to be global from doing global work” (p. 14). Equally as important, “global executives must take much more responsibility for their own development” (McCall & Hollenback, 2002, p. 12). Given the complexity of global leadership, it is also important to consider the context of learning. Mitchinson and Morris (2015) asserted that in times of change, leaders need to continuously learn and to be more agile, adapting to new business strategies and cross-cultural challenges and taking on new assignments. Learning agility includes openness to new ways of thinking and learning new skills, as well as giving up skills, perspectives, and ideas that are no longer relevant (Mitchinson & Morris, 2015, pp. 2–3).

Burke (2016) has defined learning agility as “the engagement in learning behaviors to enhance the capacity to reconfigure activities quickly to meet the changing demands in the task environment” (p. 14). The Burke Learning Agility Inventory (Burke, 2016) identifies nine different dimensions of learning agility, and Table 10 illustrates how the 29 learning approaches reported by the study participants align with Burke’s nine dimensions. Burke’s Learning Agility Inventory is newly released and its application to the learning data in this study appears to support its utility.

Table 10.

Global Leader Learning Approaches and Burke’s Dimensions of Learning Agility.

Learning Approach Description from Study Participants Burke’s Learning Agility Inventory Dimensions
Flexibility Speed Experimentation Performance Risk Taking Interpersonal Risk Taking Collaborating Information Gathering Feedback Seeking Reflection
Self Be open to learning X X X X X X
Be uncomfortable X X X X
Be flexible X X X X X
Be a risk taker X X X X X X
Be reflexive X
Learn from experience Just do it X X X X X
Experiment X X X X X X X
Communicate X X X X X X
Influence others X X X X
Learn your role X X X X
Learn from others Listen X X X X X X
Talk to people X X X X X X
Learn from everyone X X X X X X
Learn from stakeholders X X X X X X
Find an early adopter X X X X X
Learn from a framework Learn company culture X X X X
Understand the +/− X X X X X
Create a system X X X X X X
Set up operating mechanisms X X X X X X
Learn from gaps and mistakes Learn from mistakes X X X X X X X X X
Follow up on gaps X X X X X X X X
Failing X X
Unlearning X X X X X X X X X
Learn because of the global context Different time zones X X X X
Distance X X X X
Different cultures X X X X X X
Learn local labor laws X X
Get out of headquarters/travel X X X X X X
Global and local X X X X X X X

Implications for Research and Practice

Research on global leadership and paradox has been growing rapidly. Globalization, increasing complexity, and intensification of change are fueling research in both of these fields (Lane et al., 2014; Lavine, 2014; Lewis & Smith, 2014; Mendenhall et al., 2018; Osland et al., 2014; Smith, 2014; Zhang et al., 2015). This study builds on existing research in each field, but also fills a gap by addressing and bringing a new perspective on the intersection of global leadership and paradox.

Within the global leadership research community, this study extends current research in three areas. First, this study utilized the global leadership typology (Reiche et al., 2017) to illustrate the task and interpersonal complexities of global executive roles and its value in sample selection or specification. Second, this study contributes a deeper and much-needed perspective on global change as viewed by global business executives. Finally, this study applied Osland, Bird, and Oddou (2012) conceptual global leader sensemaking scale to a new population of global business executives. While not an intended focus of this study, a new global leadership competency (navigating paradox) was also identified. This study also extends current paradoxical leadership research: (1) using Zhang et al.’s (2015) PLB five continua with a non-Chinese sample to understand how global leaders experience paradoxical leadership; and (2) using Lüscher’s (2012); Lüscher & Lewis, 2008 and Jay’s (2013) earlier research on navigating paradox in domestic organizations to illustrate how global leaders in global business enterprises used paradox in the global change process. The explicated process model of navigating changes sheds light on understanding, making sense, learning, and navigating paradoxes in the global leadership business community, and hopefully lays a path for future research.

Additionally, there are study limitations that need to be acknowledged. The focus and design of this study limited it to current global leaders working in globally integrated companies, primarily in integrative global leadership (GL-4) roles. Studies of other types of global leadership roles or domestic leaders might have generated different findings. Further, this study was delimited to a specific population of global business executives, most of whom currently reside in the United States. Global executives from different countries, especially emerging economies, might generate different findings. Additionally, this qualitative study focused on a deep analysis of a small number of participants, and the results are not statistically generalizable.

The study recommends specific practices targeted at four audiences. For business enterprises that wish to grow globally, it is recommended that they acknowledge that change is constant; that global leaders need to pivot continuously; and that they recruit and develop global leaders who have the paradox mindset and skills needed to effectively lead in a complex, paradoxical environment. For global human resources teams that support these global enterprises, it is recommended that they build talent acquisition, talent development and talent retention systems that incorporate continuous change, paradoxical leadership, sensemaking and learning agility. For faculties that educate future global leaders, it is recommended that they incorporate the concepts of paradox, sensemaking and learning agility in the “threshold” or overall program design of their curriculum as well as in the design of specific courses. For individual global leaders, one of the most powerful insights of this study was the ownership that global leaders take for their continuous learning. Table 11 highlights specific capabilities that are recommended for individual global leaders, based on lessons learned by the study participants.

Table 11.

Study Contributions to Individual Global Leaders.

Targeted Capabilities Recommendation for Individual Practice
From paradox findings
  • Understand the concept of paradox

  • Understand the differences of internal and external paradoxes

  • Build a paradox mindset, the capability to hold and think through paradox

  • Build skills to navigate through the paradox process

From sensemaking findings
  • Understand the concept of sensemaking

  • Understand the importance of self as a sensemaking vehicle

  • Schedule regular time for reflection

  • Learn the skills of reframing, sparring, sensegiving

  • Engage others for sensemaking: conversations, networks

  • Enable strategy, frameworks, processes, and tools for sensemaking

From learning agility findings
  • Understand the concept of learning agility

  • Understand the importance of self in the learning process

  • Schedule time for learning

  • Appreciate the value of unlearning

  • Appreciate the value of mistakes, gaps, and failures

  • Learn from others

  • Learn from applying frameworks, processes, and tools

  • Leverage the context of global and local

As this was an exploratory study, recommendations for future research suggest studies that will further extend the depth and breadth of global leadership, global change and paradox research: (1) the development and validation of assessments and instruments; (2) extending this exploratory research through longitudinal studies and alternative methodologies; and (3) conducting focused studies with certain subgroups, that is, emerging markets, born-global firms, and the fast-moving technology industry.


In one of the earliest texts on organizational paradox, Quinn and Cameron (1988) stated that their purpose was “to help explore and evaluate the power of paradox as a metaphor for analyzing organization and management. In this book, we do not seek to develop a predictive theory of paradox. Rather, we seek to develop a paradoxical perspective or framework” (p. 289). Similarly, on a much smaller, exploratory basis, this study focused on developing a paradoxical perspective for global leadership by understanding the lived experiences of global leaders and how they navigated the changes that abound in their complex, fast-moving businesses.

The purpose of this qualitative study was to expand our perspective on global change and global leaders, an important but under-researched topic in the global leadership literature (Osland, 2013). The study provided answers to the major research question, How do global leaders navigate change? as well as the supporting questions addressing their experience and sensemaking of change and lessons learned and applied to subsequent changes. Executives who are global leaders are surrounded by continuous, complex change, and many of the study participants also reported that change is energizing. As they oscillated in a VUCA world, they navigated change rather than managed it, using paradox as a vehicle. During this process, they leveraged strong sensemaking savvy and learning agility. Fig. 5 illustrates the updated conceptual framework that captures the intersection between global leadership and change in the globalized world in which GIEs operate.

Fig. 5. 
Updated Conceptual Frame.

Fig. 5.

Updated Conceptual Frame.

This chapter began with the earliest global explorers and ancient maps that used the Latin words hc svnt dracones (here be dragons) and pictures of dragons to indicate unknown dangers (Dempsey, 2012). Like the early explorers, today’s global leaders navigate the unknown; however, they do so without labeled maps or even modern-day GPS systems. A major source of uncertainty for global leaders in GIEs is continuous changes and the paradoxes that entails. Here be paradox – it is not how these global leaders navigate change, but rather how they navigate paradox.


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