Preparing Young Leaders of Tomorrow

Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta)Geoff Mulgan is Chief Executive of the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta).  He has been head of the UK government’s strategy unit and head of policy in the Prime Minister’s office, and is an adviser to dozens of governments around the world, and a senior visiting scholar at Harvard.  He is the author of many books including ‘Good and Bad Power’ published by Penguin. 

It’s not at all clear that our leaders are well prepared for the world around them.  Some resort to shouting and bluster; others are good managers but poor communicators.  Many focus on the urgent, not what’s important.  Too many are just in it for themselves.

So how to do better for the next generation?  This is a question I’ve been grappling with for many years, teaching on leadership programmes at places like Harvard, the China Executive Leadership Academy and many civil service colleges, as well as having had my own leadership roles in and out of government, for example running the strategy team in the UK government.

To improve leadership I jointly set up the Uprising youth leadership programme in UK cities, which “skills up” 18-25 year olds particularly from marginalised communities.  And through Nesta I’ve helped create online learning tools – the DIY Toolkit – that have been used by over a million people wanting to better solve problems and translated into a dozen languages.

I’ve learned that any programme to prepare young leaders of tomorrow needs to combine at least three main elements.  The first is knowledge about the world:  familiarity with big issues and trends, from climate change and ageing to globalisation and emerging technologies.  Here the key is to help people see the long view and not get overly caught up in short-term news.  Next comes self-knowledge: what makes you tick, what brings out the best and the worst in your character and how you find the courage to take risks and do the right thing.    Finally there are many practical skills, like how to make a speech, how to manage a team or how to use data.  

It’s not so hard to put these into a formal curriculum.  But the best programmes and courses integrate learning and doing rather than being run in traditional classroom settings.  They use real-life case studies to ground what’s being learned – so that young people apply their knowledge in the real world, where there’s something at stake.

If these are some of the practical ways of nurturing leadership, how should we understand what counts as success?  Leadership clearly matters.  But as the famous author Jim Collins once wrote, ‘every time we attribute everything to leadership we are no different from the people in the 1500s who attributed everything they didn’t understand (such as famine and plague) to God’.1  When I worked for Tony Blair running his policy team he asked us to study leadership, partly to guide new programmes being set up for teachers and others.  After looking at literally thousands of studies we realised that very few of the strong claims made in many books stand up to scrutiny.  There was only really one solid conclusion; the importance of persistence, or resilience – the ability to bounce back from setbacks. Otherwise the messages were contradictory.  Some writers favour more empowering and enabling styles; others more traditional authority and command.  Both can work.  But almost every claim could be matched by an equally evidence-based counter claim.  It becomes obvious that the best leaders have a repertoire of styles, and anyway, every virtue of leaders can turn into a vice.  Persistence can become obstinacy.  The infectious optimism that characterises so many leaders can easily turn into the giddiness with success that then makes them overshoot, or assume that they’re lucky.  Courage can become folly. 

That helps to explain why the world has so many different approaches to leadership. Switzerland changes its Prime Minister every year by rotation – yet remains one of the world’s most competent governments.  Some countries, for cultural reasons, like very visible leaders – France, the US and UK, India and Indonesia come to mind.  Others are more at home with collegial leadership teams, including the Netherlands or Japan, making it hard to generalise about what works best.   In some otherwise hierarchical organisations (from the US military to Toyota) deliberate work is done to encourage bottom up leadership and the ability to ‘swarm’ in response to a problem.2  

A nation suffering imminent defeat needs very different leadership from one that is cruising successfully.  An organisation that has lost public confidence needs very different leaders than one that is growing fast.  Similarly the styles needed to drive through change or improve performance, are different from those needed for a team that’s been through a traumatic crisis.  In societies that have gone through internal conflict a higher premium is placed on encouraging leaders to mediate, negotiate and calm fears.3  A leadership quality in one context may appear to be its antithesis in another.  One of Britain’s most successful Prime Ministers, Clement Attlee (who ran the UK after WW2) was seen by many as devoid of leadership qualities: his predecessor Winston Churchill remarked that ‘an empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street and when the door was opened Clement Attlee got out.’  These are all reasons why, for young people, the best way to learn leadership is to exercise it.  

In programmes like Uprising we emphasised students working in teams to solve real-life problems in their town, or to run campaigns. By trying to change the world you learn about how it works, and you acquire the range of skills vital to shifting things.  The same approach has worked in places like Harvard’s Kennedy School – getting students to work with local municipalities on practical, live problems is a far more effective way of learning fast than anything else.  More generally I’m a believer in getting universities to encourage many more of their students to work on real-life problems, something I’ve called the ‘challenge-driven university.’4 

Quickly, through these methods, you discover the nature of power; why people resist change even when it appears obvious why the change is needed; how prejudice, status, ideology and belief alter how people see the world around them; and how to cultivate the mixture of arrogance and humility that is so necessary in real leadership, the humility to listen and learn, combined with the arrogance to push on in achieving change even against great resistance.


When John F. Kennedy made his famous speech committing the USA to land a man on the moon he didn’t offer much reassurance. He said that the task would be difficult, uncertain and very costly.  But he also said that it would be ennobling – that taking on a great task, which would depend on the creative ingenuity of thousands of scientists, engineers and officials, would make America a greater nation. 

His speech was a good example of three-dimensional leadership.  This is a simple idea that’s useful to communicate early, as soon as young people are beginning to think of themselves as future leaders.

The first dimension of leadership is simply about getting from A to B, and in an instrumental view the question to be asked of leaders is whether they stick to the tasks they are prescribed by others – like a head-teacher implementing a national curriculum, or putting a new law into effect. 

A two-dimensional view goes wider and includes the interests and capacities of the people in the organisation.  A good leader is one who leaves behind more capacity – supporting, coaching and guiding, and sometimes setting stretching tasks. 

A three-dimensional view of leadership goes wider still, taking responsibility for the whole situation, including the interests of people who have no formal stake in, or rights over, the decisions being made, and ultimately thinking of the interests of the whole society or planet.

These wider views of leadership emphasise the importance of sharing power and knowledge, in ways that leave behind more capacity to act, regardless of whether what’s done follows a strategy.  Kennedy’s lunar ambitions were very much of this kind (and he, of course, had very little idea of how his ambition might be realised).  These richer ideas of leadership are at odds with the classic models of management or performance management, with chains linking high-level strategies to dutiful deliverers. Instead, they recognise that bigger goals and ambitions can only be achieved with wider circles of engagement.  If those engaged in a great strategic project take full responsibility for their situation and for the future, that may entail them challenging the messages and commands coming from above them.  Indeed they need to be willing to resist as well as comply, to shape their ‘authorising environment’ rather than just carrying out its orders.  They need to be willing to change themselves, and they need to be willing to give their organisation – and society – not just what it expects and wants but what it needs, even at personal risk.

One of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aides described how hard it is for a leader to impose their will: ‘half of a Presidents’ suggestions … can be safely forgotten by a Cabinet member.  And if the President asks about a suggestion a second time, he can be told that it is being investigated.  If he asks a third time, a wise Cabinet officer will give him at least part of what he suggests.  But only occasionally, except about the most important matters, do Presidents ever get around to asking three times.’5  One conclusion might be that leaders should assert their will more aggressively.  Another is that they should appoint people who share their sense of mission.  But I read this anecdote in a different way.  Since leadership capital will always be scarce, it must be better to have many competent sources of leadership rather than just one.

In the past, states sat as thin layers outside and on top of society – a caste apart, made up of specialist administrators, priests and warrior kings.  The state was imagined – and still often is – as a single thing, a coherent bloc of power separate from daily life and from everyday hopes, fears and passions.  Yet today the state is increasingly integrated in society, sitting within a wider ecology of knowledge in which states can no longer so easily monopolise resources and in which their work is less about working on a passive society and more about working within, from inside as well as outside to shape behaviours.  States continue to be the most visible, self-conscious means by which societies adapt to change. But how they do this has changed. 

These shifts make some of the older models of planning and strategy redundant. These imagined the knowledge that states used as entirely separate from the self-knowledge of the society. Instead, in contemporary democratic states, the job of being a politician or an official is becoming more about leadership from within than from without; about mobilising others or being mobilised by them; about cooperation and collaboration more than diktat; and about intensive continuous communication.  These are the skills necessary for states to reduce the risks of the external environment, and expand the room for enterprise and opportunity.  

In Diderot’s famous 18th century encyclopedia the entry for kings (‘rois’) stands next to the entry for cooks (‘rotissiers’).6  Both are presented as crafts that can be learned and perfected through practice and reflection.  Leadership has this character too. It cannot be learned simply through pedagogy, or by following the book.  But nor can it simply be improvised. Instead learning involves the acquisition of methods, followed by constant refinement and improvement through practise, repetition and critical reflection.  

What experienced strategic leaders build is a skill not dissimilar to a skilled cook, or a police officer. They become good at spotting patterns, making quick judgements as well as slower analyses.  They gain a nose for opportunities and above all for cumulative gains.

Here we come to the nub of leadership and strategy.  At its best leadership involves a higher order of service, a passionate immersion in the goals and means of strategy that is often risky, but also often exhilarating.  Most people would rather not be leaders – indeed sometimes it looks like madness to want leadership.  And many of the people who become leaders are ill-suited for it, either because of their own limitations (all tip and no iceberg) or because their lust for power obscures their moral sense.7   

But the willingness to engage deeply with an organisation, or a community, and to grasp in full its problems and its potential, is part of what helps any society avoid stagnation.  We all have an interest in encouraging the very best talent in any society to aspire to lead.  And if we don’t, we have no excuses if and when things go horribly wrong.
1     Jim Collins, Good to Great, New York, Random House, 2001
2     J. Arquilla and D. Ronfeldt, Swarming and the Future of Conflict, Rand Corporation, 2005,
3     Beardsley, K.C., D.M. Quinn, B. Biswas, and J. Wilkenfeld. “Mediation Style and Crisis Outcomes,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50, 1 (February 2006): 58-86.
4     Geoff Mulgan et al, The Challenge Driven University, Nesta, 2016
5     In  Allison, G and Zelikow, P, Essence of decision: explaining the Cuban missile crisis, Longman, New York, 1999, p.303-4
6     See Richard Sennett’s excellent book on Craft, 2007
7     Discuss the history of thinking about the morality of leadership, and why the wrong people so often become leaders, in Good and Bad Power (2006) London: Allen Lane.