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What Can We Learn From Leaders?

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One of the unique features of an EU Business School program is the opportunity to learn first-hand from a wide range of senior executives from the world’s most successful companies.

Every year, EU Business School organizes a series of exclusive conferences with top leaders from global companies, with insightful interviews led by author of “Before I was CEO”, Peter Vanham. Students have the unique opportunity to listen, interact and learn directly from those who have made it to the very top.

Conferences have included co-founder of Starbucks, Zev Siegl; former CEO of Unilever and co-founder of IMAGINE, Paul Polman; Group Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at LVHM, Vanessa Moungar; chairman of Nestlé Paul Bulcke; and vice chairman of Hoffmann-La Roche, André Hoffman.

Why is this kind of interaction with students so valuable? Let’s find out.

Theory vs. Practice

There is, of course, a place for textbooks in management. There are multiple management theories and principles that describe the methods and techniques that have worked in many organizations across different cultures and contexts.

But nothing replaces practical experience. By the time they reach the top of their tree, company CEOs have practical experience in spades. Indeed, how many times have you heard a seasoned company executive say in their commencement address, “Congratulations on graduating. But you’ll find when you get out into the real world, things will be different.”

This doesn’t mean throwing away the textbook. It means applying theoretical learning to the unique circumstances in which you find yourself. This is why learning from leaders is important – at some point, they’ve all been in the same position as you.

Finding Your Leadership Path

From the long list of leadership skills and qualities that fill the shelves of management libraries, the only sure thing is that not every leader possesses all of these qualities. Observing and learning from different leaders proves the point. They all have different strengths and approaches.

Up to nine different leadership styles have been noted in the literature, from charismatic to autocratic. Although it is rare for a leader to fit neatly into one of these categories, it is useful to listen to and observe different leaders to see whether you can identify a dominant leadership approach. This helps you to start formulating the style (or styles) that best suits your own personality and temperament.

See What Leadership Looks Like

Management and leadership are often pared down to two activities: making decisions and building relationships with people. It’s this second function that causes many otherwise competent managers to come unstuck.

Why? Because people skills, as they’re sometimes called, require empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ), and although we may be familiar with the definition of these terms, they’re not something one can learn from a textbook.

But you will observe these qualities in the leaders with whom you engage. Empathy and EQ usually improve with experience and maturity. They’re not unheard of qualities in the young leader, but are almost always recognizable in the leader – the mentor and guide – whom one looks up to.

So, if you want to learn from leaders, look at their capacity to build relationships with their colleagues at all levels, and also with their customers.

More Than Running a Business

As you observe true business leaders in action, you often see that they also lead other areas of community life. This may be as a board member of an NGO, serving on the governing body of a school, on the committee of a local sports club or theater trust, or coaching the local U-10 football team. Why is this so often the case?

Leaders like to be involved and committed, and they like working with people. In turn, people enjoy working with them, and can be persuasive in urging them to lead so that others may follow. Talk to established business leaders and see how dedicated they are. Their involvement is also often a part of their intentional networking strategy.

Becoming involved in community activities is a good way to develop your own leadership skills and networks.

Watch How Leaders Communicate

Decisions, relationships — and communication skills! Leaders are great communicators, and there’s no better way to learn this skill than by watching them in action and seeing the effect it has on an audience. It’s the perfect starting point to help you practice some of these same skills.

learning from leaders EU business school

Final Thoughts

Learning from Leaders gives you the opportunity to observe leadership in practice. It is also a wonderful chance to drop some names into a job interview or networking activity:

“I was listening to a talk by Zev Siegl, the founder of Starbucks, the other day. Do you know what he said about mentoring start-ups?”

What a great way to make your audience or potential employer sit up and take notice!

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