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University-educated leadership: curse or blessing?

  • 22 August 2023
  • By Lucian J Hudson


  • This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Lucian J Hudson Professor-in-Practice (Leadership & Organisations) at Durham University Business School and Past Director of Communications at Foreign & Commonwealth Office and HM Diplomatic Service

At a time when the UK is having to define and redefine its leadership and influence on the world stage, HEPI’s Soft-Power Index serves as a timely and challenging reminder that quality of leadership matters, and that it matters not just on a national scale, but globally.

There are two questions to ask ourselves:

  1. If we are in the business of ‘producing world leaders’, what are world leaders learning from us as a sector in the UK, USA, France, Australia, and elsewhere?
  2. Moreover, what could we offer to potential leaders if we hope to build on this trend, or improve on it in years to come?

Emergencies require directive leaders; situations where we are confronted with wicked problems need collaborative leaders with a keen sense of common purpose.

Universities – specifically business schools – have it in their gift to bring about changes in leadership over time through their teaching, research, and engagement.

Even if we allow, on average, for a 30-year time lag between the graduation of world leaders from their almae matres and their current roles, UK and USA universities account for the higher education of 43 per cent of all 360 heads of state and heads of government worldwide.

From what we can ascertain, only a tiny minority of 7 have not received a university education.

Whether we have cause to celebrate or commiserate that most world leaders are university-educated depends on (a) assessing their leadership and, crucially, (b) how much we can attribute their success in gaining and holding office to their higher education.

Cause and effect, or correlation? One could venture that most world leaders have visited a barber or hairdresser, but this would clearly be irrelevant.

We know – or we want to believe – that education can and should make a difference. Project the findings to the future, and what results ought we expect?

How much does addressing current global challenges engender growth in or maintenance of the proportion of world leaders who benefit from a university education? Are the skills and mindsets we need in our leaders those that our universities equip them with?

We tend to focus on how much education has changed. Surveys of educational methods demonstrate both continuity and change. Some enduring expectations, if not ideals, we should keep. For example, advanced education improves critical thinking—both inside the box and outside of it – develops citizenship, and brings out its students’ potential to take up leadership roles.

As well as encouraging specialism, a university education develops transferrable skills and equips graduates to succeed in whatever career or after the life decision they choose. How much do the leaders captured in this survey attribute their success to their university education and experience? Have they been successful because of—or despite—their university experience? What do we need to do more of, less of, and maybe do very differently? More importantly, how much of their leadership is a product of other aspects of their backgrounds, expertise, experience and networks? The impact of university education on the individual leaders on this list is undoubtedly mixed. 

My proposition for change would be for universities—and societies more generally—to grow out of the 20th-century focus on the individual self, and instead focus on social selves. 

Consistently emerging in leadership and strategy theory is the concept that individuals are formed, developed, and contribute in context—within a system or systems.

Any one leader – whatever their leadership attributes or style – is a bundle of competing and complementary forces: rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious, autonomous and interconnected. They are shaped by what we determine as acceptable or unacceptable in a leader, what we take responsibility for, and what we support: actively or passively. Each leader struggles with dependency, independence, and interdependence. We ignore at our peril organisational and systemic dynamics that may lead to disputes, conflicts and wars that could be anticipated, avoided, mitigated, shortened, or prolonged.

‘Freedom’ should always be taken to mean ‘freedom-within-a-framework’: vital for creativity and initiative, yet existing within necessary or pragmatic constraints. 

Understanding how limited, transient, and fragile our agency as human beings is, is the first step to acknowledging that leadership is only as effective as its followership: it is a collective expression of powers we use for good or ill.

Failure to recognise our collective responsibility for leadership now will, to my mind, result in the excesses and aberrations that organisations, nations, and systems will produce—whether in the next year, 30 years, or 300 years.

1 comment

  1. Tom Cannon says:

    It’s hard not to read this piece or the HEPI Soft Power Index without a strong sense of despair or concern for the rest of the world. Reading just how many world leaders were educated in either the U.K. or the U.S. – possible the two worst led countries in the countries over the last half century or longer – is deeply dispiriting. I suggest the U.K. in particular probably owes the world an apology, albeit the apology should be more specific and targeted. Our curse, passed onto others it seems is the power of Oxbridge. The sense of privilege, advantage and separateness – regardless of competence – they create probably explains why the likes of Sunak, Truss, Johnson, May, Cameron, Blair, Thatcher have been such disasters. In economics, for example – the blight that we have suffered from Oxford’s PPE – dates before Richi Sunak, Liz Truss and Jeremy Hunt, through David Cameron, Ed Balls, Peter Mandelson, David and Ed Miliband, to Ted Heath, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. Their and its impact is so bad that there is a case for a health (economic) warning on the programme. Moving beyond economics the English Oxbridge curse is well illustrated beyond our shores by alumni such as Victor Orban, Indira Ghandi, Bongbong Marcos and too many others.
    Perhaps the key point in the piece that “failure to recognise our collective responsibility for leadership,” requires some qualifications most already included elsewhere in the piece and the Soft Power work. First, of course, learn from these failures of leadership especially that having privilege does not equate with meriting leadership. Second, selecting leaders from narrowly educated and social groups is a poor predictor of quality. Third that, for the optimist, business schools and their graduates (may) have it in their power to bring about changes”.

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