50th St. Gallen Symposium "Freedom Revisited": 7–8 May 2020


The disruptive leader

On June 4, 2009 the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama stepped up to the podium at Cairo University in Egypt. To that day, war had overshadowed the Middle East and tensions between the US on the one hand, and states of the Middle East on the other hand, had hardened. That day, Obama was so disruptive as to create a new leadership style.

I call Obama the Transcultural Leader. A Transcultural Leader focuses on transcultural commonalities rather than intercultural differences; develops a global understanding of the world’s interconnectedness and contributes to a bottom-up global moral order; and, most importantly, bridges societal divisions, and embraces the challenges humanity faces.

Globalization enables the potential for worldwide cooperation and the Transcultural Leader – no matter whether in politics, civil society, or business – translates this potential into her or his planning tasks for our societies. Transcultural leadership is disruptive because it encourages this cooperation to take place successfully – across borders, across countries, and across time zones. And Obama does exactly that when saying early in his speech:

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those (…) who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice (…) and the dignity of all human beings.

Leadership is needed when no management task is apparent. By focusing on shared values and shared interests, Obama does not reproduce differences – which would be the result of the widely spread multi- and intercultural approaches. Instead, Obama helps the world grow together, fosters cooperation, and by doing so disruptively shifts the perspective.

Now, it is the task of the leaders of tomorrow as a global, transcultural community to support this endeavour! Since we had the crucial opportunity to experience a variety of diverse ethnic and cultural contexts we know what humanity has in common – such as the idea of fairness which all cultures share. So let’s do it: Being disruptive by not denying that differences exist but by focusing on our commonalities! Just like Obama does.

Leadership is needed when no management task is apparent.