Finding Global Perspective Without Sacrificing Tribal Loyalty

By Robert Moran, Ph.D.

Acclaimed physicist Albert Einstein shows a knack for global affairs in a 1919 letter to a friend. “One can be an internationalist without being indifferent to members of one’s tribe,” he writes. Einstein is right, of course. But balancing national identity with global perspective can be tricky for business leaders in a world that has grown increasingly interconnected since Einstein’s letter more than 90 years ago.

I tried hard to fit in when I first arrived in Japan in the 1960s as a young priest from Canada. I wanted to embrace the Japanese culture and thought I had to sacrifice my Canadian perspective to do so. Then I discovered a liberating concept. Like Einstein says, people can be global and still remain loyal to their native culture. I explore this concept in the eighth edition of my book, Managing Cultural Differences (McGraw-Hill, Nov. 25, 2010). What follows are excerpts from Chapter 1, reprinted with the publisher’s permission.

A Friendly Encounter

In our neighborhood, trash is picked up every Monday and Thursday. I was born and spent my early years in Canada, where everyone called the trash “garbage.” One of my early chores as a young boy was to take out the garbage.

I still take out the garbage, usually on a Sunday night for an early Monday morning pickup. One Sunday, as I left a full bucket on our street, I met a neighbor who was taking her dog for a walk. We exchanged pleasantries, and she asked about our adult children. She was genuinely interested.

“Elizabeth is still living and working in France,” I said, “and we are about to have a second American/French grandchild.” I told her that Sarah was working in Taiwan, Molly was in San Francisco working for the Gap, Rebecca was a volunteer bush pilot in Tanzania flying medical personnel to the Masaai, and Ben, our youngest, was in West Africa finishing his first year as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Our neighbor looked at me, and in a matter-of-fact way responded, “Well, at least you have one ‘normal’ one.”

We believe our five adult children are all “normal,” at least most of the time. Working and living in San Francisco — and working in Taiwan — are equally “normal” in today’s world.

You Can’t Trust the French

About 20 years before the above encounter, I took a sabbatical from Thunderbird. With two stuffed duffel bags each, my spouse and I left for France with our five young children. I was going to teach at a grande école — a French Ivy League university — in the suburbs of Paris. We wanted our children to learn another language and have a genuine experience of another culture.

For several weeks, we had not yet met any other foreigners as we tried to find an affordable used car, a house to rent, and schools for our children. We had only met French people who, without exception, helped us figure out how things worked in their sometimes-bureaucratic country.

Our youngest child, Ben, however, who was seven at the time, had met an American whose name was Jack, and he asked if Jack could come over and have dinner with us. We immediately agreed. As it was my turn to cook, with the help of my eldest daughter, we decided that fish — four trout from the local marché — would be the entree.

As Jack was our guest, I presented the fish on a platter to him first. As I did this, my daughter said, from across the table, “Be careful, everyone, there may be some small bones in the fish.” Jack, also seven years old, looked at me and responded, “Okay … (sigh) … You know, you just can’t trust the French.”

Surprised at his comment, I asked him where he had first heard it. “My mother says that all the time,” he responded.

Later that night, when I was dropping him off at his home, I met Jack’s mother. She told me that she hated living in Europe and wanted to go home to the United States. She was lonesome, missed her friends, and did not really like living in France.

Of course, there is nothing abnormal about being lonely and finding a new environment difficult to adapt to. But her feelings and attitudes clearly influenced Jack, who might have been less disparaging and closed to his new environment had she felt differently.

The All-American Girl

Last spring, as my work at Thunderbird slowed down, my spouse and I were able to spend a little more time together, and we were ready for a new adventure. So we rented a small house in the French countryside, thinking we would spend our time studying French, the first language of two of our grandchildren.

When my spouse told one of her friends that we were leaving for several weeks, her friend responded, “That’s not for me — I’m an all-American girl!”

But what is a global person? People with global perspective do not believe their nation is the best at everything and that everyone else wants to be just like them. Rather they understand that people from other cultures have lives and viewpoints different from their own.

People with a global perspective might not speak more than one language or have experience in other countries. They might not even own a passport. But they are aware of and interested in the issues of people around the world. They are empathetic and sensitive, and have skills in interacting with people who might not look like, talk like, smell like or act like themselves.

About 500 years ago, after the Earth was discovered to rotate around the sun, humanity had to give up the then-held belief that the earth was at the center of the universe. It simply wasn’t. Giving up old ideas or ideas that don’t work, or ideas that are inaccurate, are difficult.

When students or working professionals come to Thunderbird, as faculty we try to influence them. We certainly want them to become sophisticated in understanding key aspects of global business today.

But we also hope to convince them it is OK to be American, Canadian, Brazilian, German or Saudi. Like Einstein said, they can be internationalists and still be loyal to their own tribe. A global manager from the United States can be an “all-American girl” with passion for diversity, quest for adventure and self-assurance in cross-cultural encounters.

Helping global managers find this balance has been part of the Thunderbird mission for many years, and the success of our graduates in complex global environments is a good indicator we are succeeding.

Robert T. Moran, Ph.D., is an organizational and management consultant with specialties in cross-cultural training, organizational development and international human resource management. He is an emeritus professor of international management and former interim chair of the International Studies Department at Thunderbird School of Global Management. Moran received his graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota. He was also a coach and adviser of the Japanese National Hockey Team and, as an adviser, attended the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and the 1972 Games in Sapporo, Japan. He is the co-author of “Managing Global Differences” and “Leading Global Projects.”