How expat life builds critical leadership skills
In today’s world, little is certain, change is fast, and market dynamics are getting ever more complex. Creative leadership, the type of leadership that enables organisations to thrive in this context, is becoming more and more important. Creative leaders build organisational cultures that support innovation, collaboration, and adaptation, and involve the minds and hearts of people inside and outside of the organisation.
Leaders are built, not born, and critical life experiences contribute to developing the type of leadership skills that are crucial in the world we live in today. One such experience is living and working outside of one’s home country.
Pulling from my own experience as an expat – in France, Japan, Singapore, and Turkey – I have found that there are three important creative leadership traits gained from an expat life:
Creativity and vision
Leadership goes far beyond having managerial competency, technical knowledge, and functional skills (although these are important starting points). Leaders are creators. They bring something they truly care about into being.
When working to build a home in a new place, our first reaction is to problem-solve: we want things to go “back to normal” as soon as possible. As we go through the different stages of the move, we tend to focus on getting to the same equilibrium as we had before.
The turning point comes when we realise that the point of being an expat is not to have “normal,” but to experience renewal and growth. That is the moment we no longer try to get “back to normal” but instead start working towards a new reality.
We move away from a focus on short-term solutions and instead work towards long-term possibilities: a vision of who we could become in this new world and what is important for us to bring about.
Creative leaders do not lead to return to where they started from; in them lives a drive to create a future that matters – for themselves and for others. They have a bold vision for what that future looks like and are able to bring others along on their journey.
Curiosity and inclusion
One of the most important investments we can make whilst living overseas is to develop a more flexible mind. Interacting with people from different cultural, religious, and political backgrounds requires us to look at our deepest held assumptions and to let go of those that no longer hold true.
Real curiosity serves as a starting point for building new relationships; social and cultural awareness allows us to develop constructive interactions with others with a wide range of backgrounds. Real curiosity equally builds the capacity for discovering new concepts and ideas, a crucial leadership skill in a world defined by complexity and ambiguity.
Creative leaders have a mindset of discovery, which is about seeking and appreciating diversity of thought, letting go of the need for certainty, and listening and thinking from a place of not knowing.
Strong Inner Axis
Going far from home leads you closer to yourself. Grappling with the cultural differences in a new country allows you to deeply reflect on what defines you. When we leave a country that feels like home and move to an unknown place, our strengths and learning edges become magnified.
By reflecting on how we handle the challenges that come with an international move, we learn what sustains us, understand what strengths we can draw on, discover what shadows we need to embrace, and gain clarity on the values that guide our decisions.
Living abroad affects the fundamental structure of the self-concept: we get clearer and clearer on who we really are. We understand our behavioural patterns, how we manage emotional transitions, and what makes us resilient.
Hannah Arendt, American philosopher and political theorist, beautifully asked: “Who are you when you are with no one but yourself?” Knowing who we are at the deepest level is the first step to building a strong Inner Axis, which brings both stability and direction and is the basis for leading both ourselves and others authentically.
Personal development doesn’t happen through experiences, it happens by reflecting on those experiences. Expat life can be a treasure chest for leadership development. Here are a couple of questions you may want to consider as you reflect on your experience:
- In what ways have you grown with each move?
- What are you still failing to see in yourself?
- How have you extended your personal learnings to others?
- How do you make yourself and others belong?
- What is next for you in terms of your leadership?