Snack food man­u­fac­turer Mars, Inc.’s stiffest com­pe­ti­tion isn’t another choco­late giant like Hershey’s, but rather iTunes, says Allan Bird.

The pri­mary con­sumers of Mars prod­ucts are teenagers up to 26– or 27-​​year-​​olds, who are increas­ingly spending more of their dis­cre­tionary income not on candy, but on music,” says Bird, the newly appointed Darla and Fred­erick Brodsky Trustee Pro­fessor in Global Busi­ness in the Col­lege of Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion. “It makes it more com­plex to be a leader of a com­pany if it’s hard to iden­tify com­peti­tors or even antic­i­pate where the com­pe­ti­tion comes from.”

Bird, who will help pro­vide lead­er­ship for the college’s inter­na­tional busi­ness and strategy group, has spent the last nine years researching the chal­lenges facing today’s global leaders as director of both the Uni­ver­sity of Missouri-​​St. Louis Col­lege of Busi­ness Administration’s Inter­na­tional Busi­ness Insti­tute and its inter­na­tional MBA program.

Four key ele­ments con­tribute to the com­plexity of the global busi­ness envi­ron­ment, he says. They are: high levels of global inter­de­pen­dence; diver­sity, such as candy-​​maker Mars com­peting for the same demo­graphic as Apple’s iTunes; ambiguous con­sumer behavior; and the rapid pace of tech­no­log­ical change.

It took 50 years for the TV to reach market sat­u­ra­tion,” Bird explains. “How long did it take with cell phones and iPods?”

At North­eastern, Bird hopes to posi­tion stu­dents to become future pres­i­dents and CEOs. For starters, he plans to help expand the university’s net­work of co-​​op employers by building rela­tion­ships with busi­nesses and non­govern­mental orga­ni­za­tions, such as Doc­tors Without Borders.

Bird likens the impact of the inter­na­tional busi­ness pro­gram on its stu­dents to that of a high-​​intensity base­ball camp for some of the future’s brightest stars. If a bud­ding ball player wants to under­stand how to become a Hall of Fame hitter, for example, he needs to pick up on the tech­niques used by a Ted Williams, Wade Boggs or Albert Pujols—some of the all-​​time greats. It’s the same with under­standing what makes a top-​​of-​​the-​​line global leader.

We know that if we can get at the behav­iors and the processes that expert leaders use,” Bird says, “then we can learn to teach that to other people. Let’s find out how global leaders think and behave and then develop a pro­gram that can move others to that level.”

Over the past nine years, Bird has studied thou­sands of employees who work for the world’s highest-​​performing com­pa­nies, in search of the busi­ness elite. Only a select few, he says, are top lead­er­ship material.

The best global leaders, he explains, are expert problem solvers, who con­stantly ques­tion and objec­tively ana­lyze data; develop an intu­itive sense of how to manage a busi­ness, tai­loring their approach to the specifics of their field; hire the best employees for the job; and build and main­tain rela­tion­ships with stake­holders, all the while using diplo­matic skills.

It takes at least 10 years for a leader to develop these skills, Bird says. “Mozart was writing sym­phonies at 6 years old,” he explains, “but, in reality, they weren’t very good. The point is that it takes time for any­body to become great.”