Graduates with caps

Preparing 21st Century Leaders – Insights from Olivier Guillet at Sciences Po

Dr. Olivier Guillet is Vice-Dean of Sciences Po School of Management and Innovation as of 2017.  Before earning his Master and Doctorate in management, Guillet first studied piano and law. He launched his career in the construction business before embarking on a career in higher education management.

Denise Dampierre (DD):  From your academic and management perspectives, how has technology and the Internet impacted business leadership in France?

Olivier Guillet (OG): Historically, France was built on a system of aristocracy.  Over the centuries, the criteria of nobility has changed; birthright was replaced by a Grande École education (selective higher education institutions).  In business, the most respected companies sought out graduates from these schools as they gave evidence of an aptitude in mathematical reasoning. French business elites have been very much grounded in the 19th century paradigm where the engineer, the one who can  measure and provide scientific or mathematical verification, is the one who deserves legitimate power.

Neither technology nor business are ethically and politically neutral. People provide them with meaning. Our world needs leaders who develop projects and technologies that benefit humanity in the long term.

One might believe such scientific literacy provides French business leaders with an advantage in a technological and digital world. Experience reveals a different story.

In our times where machines and programs increasingly take over measuring and quantitative functions, the current challenge for French leaders is to understand the complexity of the world from a qualitative standpoint.

Neither technology nor business are ethically and politically neutral. People provide them with meaning. Our world needs leaders who develop projects and technologies that benefit humanity in the long term.

DD: What skills are needed for this simultaneously quantitative and qualitative leadership mindset?

OG: We need to free ourselves from the traditional French vision of leadership centered in excellence in mathematics.  Leaders also need soft skills, self-awareness, compassion, and emotional intelligence.  That’s a given.

They also benefit by expanding their vision of the world through social sciences and more.  The Greeks, for example, provide a rich source of inspiration.

We need to free ourselves from the traditional French vision of leadership centered in excellence in mathematics.

Consider the notion of “time” which is such a key issue for leaders.

Our ability to measure time scientifically frames everyone in the linear dimension of time, Chronos.  This is necessary for everyone, and a leader also needs to evolve in other dimensions of time.

Kairos refers to the moment of opportunity.  All good leaders know how to sense when something has to be done.  Now or never.

Aion represents presence in the here and now. Being fully present in the moment gives a richness to interactions and is a prerequisite for creativity, for connecting with people, and for making an impact.  This dimension of time combines the realm of the intellect with those of the emotions and intuition. This multi-dimensional, humane mindset is the winning paradigm of the 21st century leader.

This multi-dimensional, humane mindset which combines intellect, emotion, and intuition is the winning paradigm of the 21st century leader.

The challenge is to apply this kind of knowledge in real life!  We need to break down the wall between theory and practice.  Intellect is only one of the ingredients of intelligence.

People can easily fall into the trap of associating knowledge with capability. When a former colleague, a PhD in philosophy, took on a leadership position, he would ask me for advice on common management issues. He possessed the necessary knowledge to handle the situation; he lectured on the topic in his class on Stoics 101!

  • To distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot
  • Regarding the issues in the first group, to do what you can
  • With respect to matters beyond your control, to learn to let go.

He had disassociated theory from practice, knowledge implementation.

The challenge is to apply knowledge in real life!  We need to break down the wall between theory and practice.  Intellect is only one of the ingredients of intelligence.

At Sciences Po School of Management and Innovation, students gain quantitative literacy, of course.  They also follow classes in sociology, history, and geopolitics.  Additionally, entrepreneurship plays an important role in our curriculum.  We incubate over 80 projects a year.  This start-up focus is attracting a vibrant change-oriented student body to the school.

For generations past, Sciences Po had the reputation that provided students with a status and a certain guarantee of success.  This mindset no longer corresponds to the reality of Sciences Po today.  Our students are taught to be thinkers and doers, meaning-providers and risk-takers.

Our teaching goal at Sciences Po School of Management and Innovation is for students to embrace learning as a way of life: acquiring knowledge, applying it, and advancing through trial and error.   This sounds simple, yet it is complex.

Corporate cultures that allow people to make mistakes and ask questions create the conditions where people can free themselves from their biases.

Consider our susceptibility to be influenced by cognitive biases. They certainly limit our leadership development. How to free ourselves from them? Developing awareness of our unconscious beliefs is not easy. Corporate cultures that allow people to make mistakes and ask questions create the conditions where people can free themselves from their biases.  This is the environment we offer our students at Sciences Po.

DD:  Many of the historic French managers could be in a situation where the status quo is comfortable for them. Young graduates seek a new leadership paradigm.  How does a business school prepare current leaders to embrace this new generation or to equip Sciences Po graduates to navigate effectively at work?

OG: It has a lot to do with critical thinking.  By critical, I am not referring to negativity, rather to not taking things for granted.  It implies stepping back to review your management tools, culture, and values in connection with those of your future corporate world.  From a career development standpoint, it is the ability to know yourself enough to assess, “Is this what I need?  Will this make me happy?”

DD:  Success is often associated with earning a comfortable living, yet you describe something more.  How does one prepare students to weigh a comfortable lifestyle with meaningful work?

OG:  The “greed is good” paradigm is not as popular as it used to be. Young people want to undertake careers that will allow them to have a positive impact in society.

At the same time, “meaning” is one of those overused words whose definition is unclear and therefore misleading.  Does it represent purpose, fulfillment, or enjoyment? Either way, for today’s students, success clearly goes beyond the materialistic.

We encourage students to apply critical thinking to their interpretation of success.

Critical thinking is not about negativity, rather about not taking things for granted.  It implies stepping back to intentionally review your management tools, culture, and values.  Then applying them.

Be critical about “being critical” too, about relying solely on the intellect.  Our students are sophisticated thinkers with great analytical skills.  We must also warn them of the temptation to rely solely on their intellect and get disconnected from the rest of their selves.  It is important to stay tuned to the soft voice of our emotions, intuitions, and the spirit, a voice which goes beyond pure reasoning.  It speaks the relevant message of inner accord or dissonance.

DD: How does one help people hear inner dissonance?

OG:  We can promote a new paradigm of leadership.  A leader is not a tool.  A leader is an explorer of the world and an explorer of him or herself.  Students and young employees need such role models.

I am a big believer in the mimetic nature of desire, as René Girard describes it. Our aspirations emerge from within and are influenced by the people we look up to. We can easily become like the people in our entourage:

  • to want the same things
  • to think like they do
  • to act as they act

Modelling desirable behavior is key for leaders.  Their example, whether positive or negative, makes an impact.  Employees surrounded by managers who view leadership as the implementation of “universal techniques” will likely adopt a similar approach.

A leader is not a tool.  A leader is an explorer of the world and an explorer of him or herself.

We intentionally present our students with positive role models:  people of different backgrounds, more women, more artists, more social workers, and change makers.  We seek to introduce our students to courageous personalities who express a wisdom-filled vision of success.  These are leaders who step back, with humility learn about themselves and others, and invest this wisdom in both their professional and personal encounters.  They intertwine prosperity throughout the multiple dimensions of their life.

My definition of success invites an integration of the whole person: intellect, emotion, and intuition.  This applies in all facets of life: professional, personal, and communal.  Is not 21st century leadership about making a positive impact for ourselves, for the French, and for all?

Thank You

Olivier Guillet presents a thoughtful outlook on leadership in the 21st century and an invitation to action.

  • To recognize our own paradigms
  • To operate in the three dimensions of time: chronology, opportunity, and presence
  • To apply our knowledge in real life
  • To lead by example

His comments invite reflection.  How do you step back and take time to think?  How do you measure the value of soft skills in leadership?  What qualities will you model to those around you?  Please share in the comments.