There’s a widespread tendency today to think that the challenges of our time are unprecedented. As often as not, such a view is incomplete, a result of not knowing history.
One often recognizes this in discussions of globalization.
The rapid pace of international trade and transactions and relationships is without precedent in the recent past. Yet, much of it would be familiar to people at the dawn of the 20th century.
Economists Michael D. Bordo, Barry Eichengreen, and Douglas A. Irwin examine such issues in their thoughtful 1999 essay, “Is Globalization Today Really Different Than Globalization a Hundred Years Ago?” Recognizing the similarities in scope, they conclude that the intensity of globalization is markedly greater in our time.
In turn, the related tasks of leadership–indeed the operative understanding of leadership–are transformed. The practical implications are profound. This can be seen in considering the real-world differences in international trade.
A 20th Century Take on International Trade
One of the greatest early 20th century advocates of free trade was the maverick New York congressman Bourke Cockran. He is renowned as one of the greatest orators in American history. In an interesting twist, Cockran was a mentor to the young Winston Churchill.
Cockran’s evocation of free trade was influential amid great debates in the United States and Great Britain at the turn of the past century:
Your [United Kingdom] Free Trade system makes the whole industrial life of the world one vast scheme of cooperation for your own benefit. At this moment in every quarter of the globe, forces are at work to supply your necessities and improve your condition. As I speak men are tending flocks on Australian fields and shearing wool which will clothe you during the coming winter. On Western fields men are reaping grain to supply your daily bread. In mines deep underground, men are swinging pick-axes and shovels to wrest from the bosom of the earth the ores essential to the efficiency of your industry. Under tropical skies dusky hands are gathering from bending boughs luscious fruit which , in a few days, will be offered for your consumption in the streets of London. Over shining rails locomotives are drawing trains; on heaving surges sailors are piloting barks; through the arid desert Arabs are guiding caravans, all charged with the fruit of industry to be placed here freely at your feet. You alone, among all the inhabitants of the earth, encourage this gracious tribute and enjoy its full benefit, for here alone it is received freely, without imposition, restriction or tax, while everywhere else barriers are raised against it by stupidity and folly. [Quoted in James McGurrin, Bourke Cockran: A Free-Lance in American Politics, 1948].
What’s Changed in 21st Century Leadership
Cockran’s quotation holds our interest, because we recognize some aspects as enduring, while others are altogether anachronistic.
In terms of public- and private-sector global leadership, perhaps the manifest change is technological.
A century ago, the world was much larger. Access to far-away places and resources was limited to governments and private enterprises, often working in combination. The local interests were isolated, in a vastly unequal bargaining position. Ultimate customers had little knowledge of the supply chains.
Today, all of this is in the midst of transformation. Cell phones and other portable computers enable individuals to photograph and publish information worldwide. National governments are but one stakeholder group. Private and not-for-profit entities, secular and religious-based, operate alongside corporations and international governance organizations, capable of being brought together in specific cases.
Re-read Cockran’s panegyric with this in mind. Today each aspect, each link in the supply chain, points to additional stakeholders who must be taken into account. The consumers at the end of chain may well demand that the various links represent their own values. Instead of having the value established independently within the transactions along the way, the value is subject to a cascading number of relationships. Consumers are increasingly empowered to evaluate the value chain, to demand that their personal values be reflected to an ever greater degree.
Today, consumers’ values help establish business value.
21st Century Leadership is Global Leadership
The result: not only have notions of global leadership changed–but everyone is empowered to become a global leader.
How are you adapting and innovating to serve most effectively in this new era?
Who are you serving?
Global Leadership–Then and Now