What do you need to be a leader - a good headline, a social science degree and some overseas travel?
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What do you need to be a leader - a good headline, a social science degree and some overseas travel?

What do you need to be a leader - a good headline, a social science degree and some overseas travel?

Posted on 13th September 2015

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You might think that the very best leaders are born and not made.  There may be some truth in that, but there is no doubt that the really great leaders all work at it.  They learn from their mistakes.   But does the right ‘background’ make a difference?

By ‘background’, I don’t mean whether they went to Harvard or Eton, but what their degree is and whether they have much ‘real life’ experience. I’ve recently read a report in a major UK daily paper on a survey by the British Council, which claims, under a headline of “Social science and overseas study are keys to success” that “a degree in social science and international study or overseas employment experience are the two most common characteristics of professional leaders around the world”.  The comments underneath the online article were full of bile along the lines of “well what would you expect from the British Council, … full of artsy graduates who have worked overseas, etc.” (this, obviously, is the censored version!).  It rather smacks of pandering to the crowd, or in this case, the readers of this particular newspaper.

The problem with reports like this is that when the results seem to support what you suspect the body commissioning the report would like to see (even if they don’t want anything of the kind), then you are bound to get some scepticism.  However, when you actually take the trouble to drill down into the research, you find that what we have here is the classic case of a journalist and sub-editor making a story and headline that don’t actually reflect the entire truth of the research.

Yes, the original report for the British Council does say, “More than half of the leaders studied social sciences or humanities”.  Given that this study only looked at those who have a background in Higher Education, then that’s perhaps not surprising.  However, this original report is actually headlined, “What do the world’s most successful people study?” and after acknowledging the importance of humanities and social science, it goes on to say..

“Our research findings don't suggest that a particular academic discipline leads to greater career success. What they do show is that - perhaps unsurprisingly - leaders in more technical fields such as health, energy and environment, or security and defence, are more likely to have a STEM background. Those in government are more likely to have a social sciences background, while those in non-profits are most likely to have a degree in the humanities. There are exceptions within the study, however, so the takeaway should be that you can achieve professional success with a humanities, social sciences, or a STEM degree”.

Above this quote is a sub-headline in the original report.  It says, “There's no single subject that equals career success”.  But that wouldn’t have made such a good headline, would it?  Given the fact that what most countries need is more STEM graduates, I’d argue that such populist journalism does no-one any favours, least of all those who produced the original research.  IT is a career which produces leaders (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg et al) and we need to shout about it more!

Freddie Kydd, Be-IT Resourcing


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