Executives may wonder when (and how) social competencies can be learned. The curricula of elite universities and business schools and the demands of the workplace leave little time for gaining social experiences. But, no matter how severe the constraints, managers who aspire to positions of increased leadership must find the time to gather a wide variety of different learning experiences. The results of such learning are indispensable and, in general, facilitate the handling of different social situations later in one’s professional life.
Participating in sports or cultural activities can provide important social experiences.
For instance, consider the experiences of an amateur actor in a local theater company. In acting, one has to open up, to jump into the skin of other, sometimes contrary, characters. One has to submit to the director’s authority, to think and act within a team. In 45 Jaar met Philips: Tekstverzorging Leo Ott [45 Years with Philips: An Industrialist’s Life], his memoirs published in 1976, Dutch entrepreneur Frits Philips tells of his roles on the student stage. His story is one of self-education, of abandoning self-importance, and of becoming aware that no one is infallible. Mr. Philips’s tale fits the classic “T model,” which describes the social and educational needs of a successful manager. The horizontal beam stands for breadth of education; the vertical beam for the depth in one special field. It’s entirely appropriate to focus and increase the depth of that specialized knowledge. But it is every bit as important to have the kind of horizontal breadth that allows one to have a more fully formed perspective.
A business education that embraces noneconomic contexts can provide the kind of social competence that encourages humane leadership. For example, parts of the German university system (traditionally very specialization-focused) are adopting a general studies program, with an emphasis on educational breadth. The new University of Erfurt — a self-proclaimed “lab for developments in the university system” — requires a “fundamental” study program that makes up 20 percent of the course load for all students. In addition to requiring that core program, the university encourages students to build educational breadth. The founding dean of the university, Professor Peter Glotz, now a professor for media and society at Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen, explains the Erfurt experience: “Our students work on their degrees in professional practice. There, they learn to build social and humanist skills. They know, however, that they have not finished yet. They return to the university some time later to finish their studies.” Similarly, private universities like the European Business School mandate semesters in English- or French-speaking regions, creating educational and cultural experiences that doubtlessly expand the students’ horizons.
Because global companies increasingly encounter many culturally different ways of thinking and diverse living and working conditions, one can easily see the advantage of a broader educational background. Indeed, it makes sound business sense for management to preserve, consider, and employ traditional local cultural values in different markets throughout the world. In Asia, for instance, the newcomer is well advised to study carefully how business relationships develop over decades of commerce. Managers schooled in a more open, less business-centric study program simply are better trained to think in longer periods of 15 to 20 years. Yes, their emphasis must remain on efficiency; but as outsiders, they will do their jobs better if they have a fuller perspective of their business choices and understand the local consequences of their actions.
Again, strong leadership is rooted in not just in-depth professional knowledge in one area of expertise, but also a broad understanding of a number of different disciplines. And the effective leader never stops learning. Management techniques change to suit different times and conditions. This lesson has certainly not been lost on the young, very well informed, self-confident, creative, and innovative Internet-generation managers.