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10 Leadership Lessons Drawn from My Travels Around the World – Part 1

By Samuel Kim

In the past twenty years till right before the start of this ongoing global pandemic, I had a unique opportunity to travel to about eighty countries around the world, broadening my perspectives of the regional and local politics, cultures, sustain ability, economic growth, etc. In some of these places, I engaged in discussions with established leaders and decision-makers who represented an array of nations, communities, and industries. 

In the next five series of my writing, I will share ten lessons on leadership that I have pondered during some of my journeys. They form my overarching idea of what a 21st-century change-initiating leader should be. 

1. Leadership means paying attention to how the world is changing. 

With successful business giants today racing toward the symbolic trillion-dollar market cap, it’s interesting to note that a considerable part of this “industrial transformation or reinvention” can be attributed to second- or third-generation immigrants, sometimes even first-generation immigrants. I’ve mentioned in several of my talks that 71% of U.S. unicorns (start-ups valued at $1 billion) have immigrants in their management and product-development teams—many of whom are Asians. Each billion-dollar start-up with an immigrant founder creates around 760 jobs. It is imperative that these companies need to see opportunities in what others perceive only as threats.

Yet this is an audacious hope, considering that more and more companies are grappling with their own mortality. Effective leaders need to keep track of how the landscape is changing and decide how to make the right kind of progress, progress that has as its end goal the improvement of human lives and conditions. Our complex and increasingly volatile world has seen 62% of companies reporting growth, with the remaining 38% contracting. This uncertain milieu is harsh to the slow-footed. A brutal turnover forecast predicts that about 50% of the S&P 500 in the U.S. will be replaced over the next decade. And this is true for most, if not all, of the countries in Asia as well. 

2. Leadership means asking the questions that will matter tomorrow. 

While technology and digitalization seem to be reshaping the global landscape before our very eyes, there is another emerging trend that might prove to be a game-changer: declining birth rates. Of course, issues like sustainability and climate change have been hot topics for years, but Europe and North America, as well as several countries in Asia—Japan, Korea, and even China and India—are beginning to feel what many believe to be the irreversible consequence of decades of population-control policies. 

Right now, the conventional wisdom is to celebrate the plummeting birth rate as a symbol of women empowerment. Nevertheless, the question of how declining birth rates will reshape the demographic landscape is getting harder to ignore. This trend accounts for aggressively aging populations, which led technology entrepreneur Elon Musk to note that, in Japan, “adult diapers outsell baby diapers.” He went on to say, “The full gravity of this is not well understood but will become a severe issue in the next few decades.” How are governments, businesses, and civil society addressing this complex issue? 

Another is long-standing realities like geopolitics, economic uncertainties, social divide, and political instability continuing to play a contentious role in many parts of the world. Having worked in the United Nations, I’m no stranger to the fact that our world is fraught with fault lines, gaps, and tensions that could reach a tipping point at any moment, creating unmistakable uncertainties. These examples demonstrate that leaders must constantly keep in mind the possibility of dramatic changes in the future, from causes that range from technological advancement and skill gap to climate change and global pandemic.