In business, nothing beats experience. But the way you profit and learn from that experience will depend on what you learned at school.
Like any profession, entrepreneurship is strongest when it’s based on a broad understanding of the way the world works in general, in addition to the sector-specific knowledge that makes you a true professional.
Graft and enthusiasm will get you a long way, but your mind is a network. The more nodes you add to it, the greater the potential solutions you’ll create for the problem your business sets out to solve.
But with true leaders, general knowledge and industry expertise are often augmented by a third factor: a wild card.
Studying a topic at college because you’re passionate about it even if it doesn’t directly relate to your professional ambition can help you to understand more about the way that people work and give you a unique angle on your business dealings.
Look at Peter Thiel, co-founder and CEO of PayPal, for example. His first degree was in 20th Century Philosophy.
PayPal became a household name because the company dared to question a fundamental facet of human relationships: financial transactions. And it put a consumer-oriented, user-friendly face on a service when a less thoughtful entrepreneur might have gone straight for the money – and alienated that massive potential customer base.
We see the same pattern again in the “leaders’ leaders” – our politicians.
Career politicians without a separate specialization alienate their electorate because there’s a sense that what matters to them is power, and that they share little common ground or experience with regular people.
Voters – and customers – like the sense that they’re dealing with someone who has real-world experience or specialist knowledge and a strong identity.
This new set of interactive maps shows which world leaders studied which subjects.
You can hover over a region to reveal its leader and their major. While politics and economics is the most common major for world leaders, the subject was studied by just 23% of the world leaders who went to college.
So what else did they learn?
A brainy 13 out of 24 North American presidents and prime ministers hold master’s or doctorate degrees, and in a wide range of topics.
Donald Trump’s education is as checkered as his business success.
He was moved from private school to New York Military Academy at age 13 due to behavior problems. His bachelor’s degree in economics is from the University of Pennsylvania.
Despite claiming to have graduated first in his class from Wharton, the New York Times points out that “the commencement program from 1968 does not list [Trump] as graduating with honors of any kind.” But whatever he learned in those classes, he’s now the most powerful person in the world and the first image that comes up when you google “idiot.”
Trump’s Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau seems like a more coolheaded character, but he quit both engineering studies and an environmental geography MA along the way.
However, this was only after earning a B.A. in English from McGill University and a degree in education from the University of British Columbia. His love of the humanities and broad study interests have no doubt contributed to his ‘man of the people’ image.
European leaders are notable for their knowledge of law.
From Portugal’s Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa to the Finnish president Sauli Niinistö, the continent’s legal eagles continue to balance the need for international co-operation and diplomacy against the legal and technical nuances that protect the interests of their respective peoples.
Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister (or ‘taoiseach’) is unique among his peers for having studied medicine.
He worked as a junior doctor and general practitioner, before becoming noted for maintaining his political credibility and position despite a failed attempt to depose his party’s then-leader.
Varadkar’s new road safety strategy was among innovations that saw him cement his reputation as a politician, although his social policies have been harsh despite the care for his fellow citizens you would expect from a medical man.
Zanzibar’s president, Ali Mohamed Shein, is another medical man: his Ph.D. degree in Clinical Biochemistry and Metabolic Medicine had the impressive title “Inborn Errors of Metabolism.”
He got plenty of extra experience and training in areas such as blood transfusion and ‘HIV/AIDS Control Program in Developing Countries’ on his way to becoming Deputy Minister of Health.
Math and science are also popular subjects among Africa’s leadership, but unfortunately so are military and law enforcement.
If the topic you study will shape the way you see the world and craft solutions, then this should be considered among the influencing factors in the continent’s trouble spots.
The prime minister of Bhutan took an appropriate subject for his job: a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard. His regime is famous for its use of a “Gross National Happiness” scale that reflects Tshering Tobgay’s academic approach to shaping society!
Through Tobgay’s leadership, well-being has been prioritized over the economy, and modernization has continued apace even as the tiny country has managed to reduce carbon emissions to the level that they actually claim to be carbon negative.
It goes to show that sometimes studying an on-the-nose topic can help you get to grips with the nuts and bolts of how a country – or a business – is run.
Elsewhere in Asia, engineering and architecture are popular topics, reflecting the diverse needs of wealthy nations seeking to build and expand, and poorer countries hard at work on their urban infrastructure.
New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern became the country’s youngest prime minister in a century and a half when she took office in October 2017, aged just 37.
She’d grown up in a rough area and taken her bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies before traveling to the UK to work with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
On return to her homeland, Ardern used her education and experience to construct convincing arguments in favor of the introduction of compulsory instruction in the Maori language in New Zealand schools. She also spoke up for a more meaningful response to the climate change issue.
Her media background is reflected in her private life, dating a TV personality and performing as a DJ.
With a positive, humanistic message and an understanding of media, she was able to win the support of New Zealanders and replace the National Party’s Bill English as PM.
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Only 11 (of 13) South American leaders studied beyond high school.
Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro did not go to college but came to the presidency with some experience of steering his compatriot’s destinies: he used to be a bus driver.
Maduro’s socialist positioning is admirable but has sadly proved problematic in the face of an economy ravaged by the drop in oil prices.
He’s also shown himself to be a somewhat aggressive driver, cracking down on opposition figures, censoring the news, and allowing national guardsmen to use violence against activists.
Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, grew up in a mining area and has a background in farming, llama herding, and the military.
His political education came not at school but in farming, as he felt compelled to stand up for worker’s rights as part of coca-growers unions.
His desire to fight corruption and reduce the gap between rich and poor saw him reach power in 2006, where he has remained ever since.
It just goes to show that while a rich education can equip you to take on your career in a unique and informed way, to be a leader who is both effective and popular requires empathy and the will to maintain a fair and equitable system.