The Future of an Illusion - In Search of the New European Business Leader

As an economic entity, the EU is complex, convoluted and an ideological battlefield. Its 25 current members have a combined GDP approximating the USA's, with nearly 50% more citizens. But its gradual growth has brought baffling and very multifaceted challenges. With the Eurozone economy now treading water at best, a sense of crisis for governments and business communities is mounting. Professor of Leadership Development Manfred Kets de Vries posits the case that "people in Europe have to overcome a serious case of cognitive dissonance".

by Manfred Kets de Vries, Konstantin Korotov
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

As an economic entity, the EU is complex, convoluted and an ideological battlefield. Its 25 current members have a combined GDP approximating the USA's, with nearly 50% more citizens. But its gradual growth has brought baffling and very multifaceted challenges. With the Eurozone economy now treading water at best, a sense of crisis for governments and business communities is mounting.

The Raoul de Vitry d'Avaucourt Chaired Professor of Leadership Development Manfred Kets de Vries posits the case that "people in Europe have to overcome a serious case of cognitive dissonance."

"On one hand, an enlarged, unified Europe will help Europeans as it opens new opportunities.... On the other hand, the direct consequences of enlargement... for a particular employee in the older EU countries is a threat of job loss or a perceived deterioration in working conditions...."

While acknowledging that such "incompatible cognitions" would be difficult to reconcile in any circumstances, the author condemns a "time-warped proletariat" in many of the older member states for, among other sins, refusing to see why diversity is so fundamentally necessary in an evermore-competitive global economy.

Kets de Vries goes on to offer a brief but comprehensive consideration of the intrinsic challenges a multi-state, multilingual and remarkably culturally and socially diverse EU will always face. But can - and moreover, should - the EU be treated as any kind of uniform entity? Is any conceivable model of European political, and/or economic "leadership" not illusory, at heart, considering all such dissimilarities?

"Europe is a clear example of the non-universalism of many organisation-...work-... and leadership-related values, attitudes and behaviour patterns. (But) most of the writing and research on leadership, when applied to Europe, is based on traditional, universalistic (for that, read US) approaches."

The author suggests that a more "glocal" mentality (i.e. thinking globally while taking more indigenous needs into account) offers the best, and possibly only, practical solution to the challenges largely inherent to the EU. He covers the failures of the "bubble" and "chameleon" approaches typically taken by many EU politicians, and why they are proving increasingly counter-productive.

Glocal solutions may work best when:

· The best practices in a particular localised function can be introduced at a European (or even global) level.

· EU political leaders can mobilise their supporters' resources to avoid the paralysis often associated with sweeping changes, (esp. when these concern job security, maintaining cultural identity, possibly giving up certain work-related benefits, etc.)

· Leaders appreciate that they may have to often be simultaneously "caring and frustrating."

· Leaders succeed in "making room for the creation of transitional space".

Kets de Vries concludes by pondering an age-old debate still alive and well in organisational literature: are effective leaders born, or made? While this nature vs. nurture conundrum is probably irresolvable, he explains in depth why well-constructed leadership development programmes may be so beneficial.

Within Europe, different aspects of leadership behaviour may well be less or more important in specific contexts. But as the author details, there are nevertheless certain universal elements that make for highly effective leadership themes. "Interestingly, a number of global companies have discovered that the time spent in Europe by their senior international executives often serves as the best possible preparation for taking on a global role," says the author. "In a significant way, Europe represents challenges that are typical for global business at large. Mastering leadership in Europe, therefore, can be seen as a nursery for the acquisition of global leadership skills."

INSEAD 2005

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