Honest Inquiry Interview: Jean-Pierre Lehmann (Part 1 of 2)

The inaugural Honest Inquiry Interview features long-time GIFT supporter and founding member of our Global Advisory Council, Professor Jean-Pierre Lehmann.

Jean-Pierre is emeritus professor at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland, where he was appointed to the chair of international political economy in 1997. He has worked intensively and extensively across Asia for 50 years. He is founder of the Evian Group, an international coalition of corporate, government and opinion leaders united by a common vision of enhancing global prosperity for the benefit of all. He is also currently a visiting professor in the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Hong Kong and at NIIT University in Neemrana, Rajasthan, India.

A conversation with Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Part One – On Leadership Learning

You’ve been an educator for most of your career, and a large portion of that has been spent in the arena of business and corporate education. What do you think should be the key elements of 21st century leadership learning?

It’s a bit of a paradox because actually I do not have a business educational background at all. Never sat a GMAT and no MBA. I did my undergraduate degree in politics, economics and history and my doctorate was on Japanese economic history from roughly 1850 to 1885 – the period of industrialization/transformation.

I was originally recruited in 1980 by INSEAD not because I knew anything about business, but because I was quite familiar with East Asia; this was at a time when there was growing talk (indeed some alarm) at the emergence of the Japanese “challenge” – seen by some as a threat – the rise of the Asian NIEs (newly industrialised economies, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan), the growing interest of foreign investors in some of the South East Asian countries, especially Thailand and Malaysia and the dawn of China’s reforms. Since then the transformation of the planet has intensified quite dramatically.

    The key facets of leadership learning should be (in equal order):

    • Professional business acumen (the business world of the 21st century is no place for amateurs!);
    • An ethical compass;
    • Genuine global knowledge; and
    • Committed citizenship both local and global.

    Much “leadership” learning today is reasonably strong on the first (business acumen) but woefully weak on the other three.

    Having taught and advised countless executives over the years, you must have noticed some common characteristics amongst the most effective business leaders; What are they?

    When I was teaching International Political Economy in the MBA programme at IMD (from 1997 to 2012) every year I used to pose “global literacy tests”. These were a series of questions on key global issues, developments, trends, and later on in the course on specific regions, eg Africa, Europe, China, South Asia, etc. IMD MBA candidates are a total of 90 annually, typically from 40+ countries, with about 8 years professional experience. I could see no pattern among the winners in terms of nationality or profession. A couple of Italians might be among the top ten one year and at the bottom another.

    When we carried out interviews among the “stars” and asked them how come they knew so much, a word that would keep coming back among all the winners was “curiosity”. The global business leader of today has to have global knowledge and understanding. If she does not have curiosity, she will not be an effective or indeed knowledgeable leader.

      Check out this post on the importance of ‘knowing what you don’t know’

      A follow-up question: What measures can aspiring leaders take to cultivate these characteristics when it comes to their own education and personal development?

      Read, listen, be open-minded, probe, and then read more and listen more …….

      Critics of the MBA and traditional business education in general often invoke the ‘unholy alliance’ between business schools and the more prominent rankings. They say too much emphasis is given to graduates’ expected salary increases when there are more important measures of a successful education. Do you think this is a fair assessment, and what is your view?

      The world has changed in many profound ways. Developments over the last two or three decades have been in many cases quite remarkable – notably the tremendous reduction in global poverty, especially in East Asia – and offer hitherto undreamt of opportunities. But all is far from well.

      There is a truly excellent book on India by Harsh Mander with the title, “Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India”. A book could be written with the same title except not just about India, but about the world. Mander’s basic thesis is that the Indian elites are too busy pursuing their own private material interests and comforts to notice, let alone address, the plight of those at the bottom. This is unsustainable. It is exacerbated by many practices, MBA rankings being among the more prominent.

      Apparently Winston Churchill never said (though he should have!), “you make a living from what you earn; you make a life from what you give”. MBA rankings prize earning (living) and ignoring giving (life). Fortunately, a good number of estimable MBAs rise above this and both earn and give.

      What are some of the unsung indicators of the effectiveness of an MBA or executive education programme? Indicators that prospective students or companies should look out for and that should be included (or assert more weight) in the annual rankings.

      The late distinguished, tantalisingly provocative and erudite scholar Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay on Tolstoy’s view of history, which he entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox”. The hedgehog digs, digs, digs in the same spot, and therefore knows a lot about one small universe. The fox runs and runs and runs over lots of territory, staying on the surface, hence he knows a little about lots of universes. The ideal person in this world is something of a hybrid between a hedgehog and a fox. Know a little about a lot, at least to awaken a sense of awareness, and know a lot about a specific dimension (whether technology, a particular region, whatever).


        The MBA of the 21st century curriculum should be both specific and holistic. There has been too much emphasis on “skills” and not enough on “qualities”. The characteristics attributed to a “leader” too often neglect the “human being”. Of course, one needs to be highly skilful in accounting, marketing, finance, etc, but also have strengths in the humanities, in literature, philosophy, history, musicology, etc. Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna published an excellent book last year entitled, “Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance”. To reap the rewards and avoid the risks, the New Renaissance needs Renaissance men and women.

          You have advocated a more inclusive approach to doing business as the only way to achieve prosperity for all. Why should current and future leaders care about socio-economic development in the markets where they operate?

          Knowing what is going on in a region where one is doing business should be driven at least in part, simply by enlightened self-interest. Following on from the question above, it can help mitigate the risks. Globalisation is at risk, however, and with it all the potential rewards it could bring because while a lot of efforts (more or less successful) have gone into creating global markets, what is distinctly lacking is a sense of global community.

          Paradoxically, whereas globalisation should enhance global knowledge, respect, understanding, we have in fact seen in many parts of the world greater xenophobia, suspicion and ignorance. This is prominently, indeed flagrantly, manifested in the leader of what should be the global leading nation, ie Trump in the US. As was commented, perhaps what is most remarkable about Trump as president of the US in this New Renaissance age is the “depth of his ignorance”. Not only is his ignorance deep, but he appears very proud of it. If we had proper global business leadership – which we obviously do not – Trump would not have become president.

            For our final question let’s turn to GIFT. What is it about our approach to executive learning that made you such a big fan in the first place?

            To be honest, GIFT’s approach to executive learning is what executive learning in the 21st century should be. It is emphatically global in philosophy and practice. It is social in that it addresses social issues, aimed at finding pragmatic business solutions, while utilising and fostering future-oriented technological innovations. It is not a philanthropic institution aimed at dispensing charity, not is it a hard-nosed only-for-profit oriented entity. It is inspirational and, as I say, what executive learning should be all about in the 21st century.

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