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Developing future leaders in an uncertain world

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"Panta Rhei! - Everything changes and nothing remains still. You cannot step into the same stream twice" uttered Greek philospher Heraclitus 2500 years ago. However, the same theory still applies now when new leaders are emerging.

A leader fit for purpose

Every period of time has its own specific challenges, and very special people are needed to face them. The spirit of our time, or Zeitgeist, at the turn of the 21st Century can be characterised by the acronym VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It is a time when the perceived stability of historical superpowers is being challenged by new political and economic powers rising such as China, India, Brazil and soon Indonesia. Africa is also finally rising up to play its part in this global arena of influence. 

This political and economic upheaval is further compounded by technological advancements on a scale matching that of the industrial revolution at the turn of the last Century. It is leaving its mark on the ways in which we produce and consume goods, on how we communicate and travel, and has deeply changed the face of human interaction.

This coupled with the mark that humanity is leaving on the Earth’s strained resources is becoming all too visible, impacting our politics and economies. Our individual and collective behaviours will inevitably have to change, yet again, in order to ensure the very foundations of the future of our human race.

Success lies in the new generation

How can we overcome these challenges? Our best hope, as is confirmed by the history of human development, is to invest in the education of future generations. But already we are at a disadvantage. We will have to reclaim some of the ground lost in the aftermath of the last 50 years of over-specialisation. We have segmented knowledge into disconnected pieces in the name of overly simplistic economic models of efficiency, characterised by so-called “rational choice”.
Instead, we need to reach back to the idea of the “universal scholar” from the Middle Ages, who had a broad understanding of all the forces that influenced and shaped society, combining philosophy, natural sciences, technology, and law – first in China, then in the Arab World and finally, in Europe.

So, where does this fit with education? For business, and business education, this means embedding core subjects such as operations management, finance, accounting and marketing into the broader context of what our fellow human beings need to live not only prosperously, but in peace and harmony with nature, with each other, and with their neighbours.


We strongly believe that this broad rooting in management education can best be built with the next generation of future business leaders – younger students, whose minds are still open to new ideas. Focusing on providing pre-experience Masters in Management education consecutive to a solid foundation of 3-4 years in Bachelors education, to those aged between 22 and 23.

In preparing our own future leaders for a VUCA world, we have identified several key traits that are crucial.

‘Think out of the toolbox’

It stands to reason that business professionals should leave education equipped with not only the theoretical knowledge to understand the problems they may face, but a broad analytical toolkit to be able to begin to address them. But, in developing future leaders who can create a real definitive change this needs to be taken one step further. Even better than knowing which tools to use in any given situation is understanding how to expand that toolkit to tackle problems in another way. Educators should be teaching students how to craft new methods of their own making – connecting their experiences and analysis with their own judgement, and learning from the experiences of others.

Build your experience

This is true for all business students of course, but especially for Masters in Management students who have had little experience in the business world. Being actively engaged with practitioners is an important part of their development, and business school is an ideal setting to test the waters. Engaging with professors whose previous careers have been in the corporate world, or participating in business simulations goes some way towards this, but the “real time reality check” is too important to not consider.

Students work with companies and with each other on specific consulting projects, complete internships during their studies and foster their own start-ups. Additionally, our relationship with NGOs such as transparency and care international impacts upon teaching to educate students on the importance of working for the greater good and not just personal gain.

Develop a global mindset

Students should be exposed to as many different points of view (even better, different learning and living environments) as possible, to learn how limited and biased their own perspectives can be. For this part, experiential learning is key. Undertaking international study trips are a good start, but a common problem with such initiatives is that students only skim the surface of any given culture, and do not get the chance to truly experience the locations they visit.

Lessons are not dominated by any single culture due to lack of physical home, but rather a diverse global community that students can use to their advantage. By getting them out of their comfort zones they learn to adapt to how other people work, and begin to challenge their own assumptions, and finally to think, act and even feel beyond the limits of their own origins.

Experience pedagogical diversity

In an increasingly interconnected, multidisciplinary world business leaders need to work in a more collaborative way across departments and industries, and even countries and timezones. To do this successfully, flexibility is vital. In preparing future leaders for this, these variations should be reflected in their education. Institutions should imitate the realities of the working world with different forms of learning such as group work, online or blended learning and simulations. Working with others and combining ideas.

The time has come when a world in turmoil needs inspired leadership through example, collaboration, and most importantly mutual understanding. By encouraging our future leaders to build bridges across the divides that separate us we have hope for the future.

Roland  Seigers

By Roland Seigers

Roland is executive director at CEMS, a global alliance of 30 of the world’s leading business schools and 74 multinational companies and NGOs that together offer the CEMS Masters in International Management (MIM).

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