Three leadership lessons from three world leaders

If you get the chance to ask one question to an extraordinary world leader – someone who has led millions of people through decade-long wars and conflicts, or someone who dares to put people’s happiness before economic growth, or someone who fights relentlessly for human rights despite facing fierce pushback – what would you ask?

Recently, a group of Oxford students got the opportunity to ask a wide range of questions to three extraordinary world leaders – Professor Juan Manuel Santos, Former President of Colombia and Nobel Peace Laureate; Dasho Tshering Tobgay, Former Prime Minister of Bhutan; and Ms Ana Helena Chacón, Former Vice President of Costa Rica. Organised by the Programme for Global Leadership, Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR), the discussions were part of a series titled 'Leading with Character: Conversations with World Leaders', which created a unique space for these leaders to share a candid reflection of their personal and professional leadership journeys, and advice for the leaders of tomorrow. Here are three key pieces of advice from them on becoming good leaders.

  1. You cannot be a good leader without being a good human being

Good leadership puts people and humanity at its core. Ms Ana Helena Chacón emphasised that one cannot be a good leader without being a good human being. She shared how she tried to develop public policies based on love, not hatred. As the Vice President of Costa Rica, she fearlessly championed LGBT rights and many other issues that were not popular at all. Recalling those tough times, she advised young leaders to cultivate empathy, active listening, and love. After all, she said, people always remember how their leaders treated them.

When asked what practices students can cultivate to become a leader like she was, Ms Chacón said with a big smile, “Laugh at least once a day!”

  1. Leadership can be exercised at all levels

Meaningful change can only happen with enlightened leadership grounded in selfless service. Going beyond the fame and status of a former Prime Minister, Dasho Tshering Tobgay introduced himself to the students as a public servant. He advised the students to develop three qualities to become enlightened leaders: wisdom, courage, and compassion. In response to a question where a student asked how youth can prepare themselves for leadership roles, he explained that leadership is not simply about positions; it can be exercised at individual, familial, and societal levels. Even people who are not recognised as leaders or lack formal authority are faced with leadership choices every day. Rather than obsessively preparing for future roles, young people need to start practising leadership now.

Not everyone will become a Prime Minister; however, Dasho Tshering’s advice for every young person was, “Ask lots of questions (to yourself and others)”.

  1. Build your leadership approach based on values and principles

Professor Santos was elected the President of Colombia as a war hero, though history will remember him for his tremendous success in peacemaking and building bridges across political divides. The Nobel Peace Laureate highlighted the importance of long-term thinking and strategising, which allowed him to treat his opponents as temporary adversaries, not enemies forever. He shared a piece of wisdom he received from Nelson Mandela – the most powerful weapon is to sit down and talk. He described his leadership approach as pragmatic, built on values and principles, which served him like a map and guided him through difficult times.

On one occasion, a Head of State asked Professort Santos to offer leadership advice. He simply replied, “Sleep well”. Seeing the person's surprise reaction, he explained: “Always do the right thing, and you will be able to look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and sleep soundly at night. You may not get everything right and will surely make mistakes, but this is the best path.”

Professor Santos beautifully clarified the distinction between ethical, values-based leadership and the kind of short-term political interests that are often pursued. Leaders need to hear this!"

Petra Schleiter, Joint Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations

The conversations took place at the Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR) and were organised in partnership with the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI). As Oxford students prepare themselves to lead in a world that is going through turbulent times, conversations like these give us hope that despite the challenges around and ahead of us, there are numerous possibilities to lead with character and build a better world.