Looking to the developing countries for the next CEO

Why we need to look to the developing countries for our future leaders.

Who will lead our organisations in the future? As the trajectory of the five shifts which will shape our work is becoming clearer – so to are the competencies that will sit at the heart of leadership effectiveness.


Those engaged in our Future of Work consortium believe that leading in the future will require two core competencies: the capacity to tolerate the ambiguity that many will face in this fast changing world; and intercultural sensitivity as the joining up of the world brings greater numbers of nationalities into the frame.

Both are fiendishly difficult to develop since they go way beyond the theoretical framing of much executive development. There may indeed be models and theories of tolerance of ambiguity and cultural sensitivity – but simply knowing these will not get budding CEO’s very far. These competencies are not built through theory or classroom lessons – they are both fundamentally experience-based competencies. You have to experience it to learn it – and whilst role-playing and exercises have their place – the real developmental leap comes when you have to deal with these in your every day life. It’s way nigh impossible to become tolerant of ambiguity if you life has been structured and predictable, and it’s hard to become intercultural sensitive if you have only grown up with people just like you. I wonder to what extent structure, predictability and homogeneity is the day-to-day experience of many of the young adults growing up in the developing economies, and to what extent this narrowness of experience will potentially stunt their potential as future executives?

I was reminded of the puzzle of developing executives for the future as I sat with a senior team of Infosys last week in their campus in Bangalore. It began to dawn on me that becoming a leader in developing countries like India is essentially a daily lesson in the tolerance of ambiguity. In Mumbai the choking traffic makes concepts of punctuality almost impossible; the power cuts in many Indian cities means that its tough to plan with precision; whilst the growing chasm between the rich and the poor forces every executive to confront the ambiguity of the distribution of riches. Under these circumstances ambiguity is rife, and tolerance the most adapted response.

Often in these developing countries these every day situations are not black and white. I remember last year in Mumbai stepping out from one of the wealthy family apartments that are springing up across the city, to find myself confronted by a child no more than three years old sleeping on the pavement in front of me. Like all those around me I picked up my foot and carefully stepped over him. That is ambiguity with a capital A.. Whether of course one can tolerate it is another question. But the fact remains that these developing economies are awash with ambiguity and it seems to me that the daily experience of these ambiguities may go a long way to developing the depth of experience and understanding and the capacity to consider paradoxes that will be crucial for future leaders.

And its not just tolerance of ambiguity that developing countries like India may have a lead on. Its also cultural sensitivity. As we toured the campus of Infosys our guide told us that the canteen serves over 40 different types of Indian food. Those from Maharashtra for example will not eat fish or meat, the Jains will not eat anything that has been dug from the ground and could have a living insect on it – so potatoes, garlic and onions are out – the list is endless. Each region of India has its own language, own food, and own customs, even its own preferred deity. There is no one homogenous culture that envelops them all. So when young people join Infosys or Wipro or TCS from across the subcontinent they are put with people who may look superficially like them, but in reality are very different – and it is in working with these differences that cultural sensitivity emerges.

What this suggests, is that as we look for the talent pools where future CEOs may be developing, we would be wise to look to the developing countries. It is in these places that life’s daily experiences of ambiguity and diversity may well be creating the crucibles of experience from which the next generation of CEOs will emerge.

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