The Dean’s vision of the Global Leadership Fellows Programme


Gilbert J. B. Probst

Managing Director and Dean, Leadership Office and Academic Affairs

The Global Leadership Fellows Programme (GLFP) is a unique leadership development programme. It is run by the World Economic Forum for a small group of Forum employees, known as Global Leadership Fellows. The programme takes a step towards finding the next generation of leaders, not only to address the future of the Forum’s own management and governance, but also that of the world as a whole. It is a three-year programme that combines a position at the Forum with several weeks per year of intensive training and development, one-on-one coaching and mentoring, and in-depth knowledge of industry, civil society and government. It integrates academic courses from a cluster of the world’s top universities with regular study modules either at ‘home’ in Geneva or at the Forum’s meetings across the globe. The objective is to train generalists: well-rounded professionals who work easily in complex environments by bringing different perspectives to help solve common problems.

Although the GLFP aims to train and develop leaders, it does not start from scratch. Instead, each Fellow has displayed prowess in his or her field, and the programme acts as a type of finishing school for the ‘rough diamond’ leader of tomorrow. Almost half of those recruited hold at least two master’s degrees and one in six have a PhD – often from the world’s best universities – and have demonstrated skills in service orientation, project and people management, research, and problem solving. They have around six years’ work experience from both public and private industries; many are entrepreneurs who are developing their own companies or social initiatives.

The GLFP is at the core of the Forum’s strategic aspirations, which are to foster visionary leadership; to promote greater accountability towards the Forum’s communities and stakeholders; to be constantly ahead of conventional thinking; to instil impeccable intellectual and moral integrity; and to inculcate the Forum’s commitment to serving the public interest. The principles underpinning the programme assume that it is no longer enough for leaders to rely exclusively on the authority of their position; instead, they must be able to influence, inspire, work within and across cultures and organisations, while holding the capacity to motivate and develop the people around them. Although theoretical frameworks are useful, they are not sufficient to lead: the GLFP moves away from the generic approaches of executive programmes and provides important context to global issues. Despite originating from a single organisation, it aims to produce leaders with different perspectives.

Thus, the programme is broadly structured according to three pillars: individual leadership, leading in teams and organisations, and leadership in a global context. The first advances and refines the personal capabilities of the individual, and encourages Fellows to develop the skills necessary for good leadership. It goes beyond traditional academic and corporate leadership courses, and broadens ‘spiritual’ approaches that call for personal soul-searching. Through peer and executive coaching, mentoring, and academic modules on strategy and management, the GLFP reinforces the qualities that its Fellows have already displayed in previous walks of life. However, the programme encourages participants to push the boundaries of their experiences, which is demonstrated well by a theatre workshop that the Fellows complete at Columbia University. Many of the successful ingredients in theatre and leadership overlap: confidence, authority, creativity, empathy, and the ability to engage audiences effectively. Perhaps the most valuable insight into leadership that can be taken from the arts is the communication of complicated messages in simple, subtle, and often beautiful ways. This is something that the business world is still adjusting to.

Through the second principle, team and organisational leadership, the Fellows learn to influence and manage people and teams. The purpose is to deepen Fellows’ understanding of leadership, followership, and the tie between them; and to develop their capacity to lead and follow mindfully, effectively and responsibly. Leaders are most inspiring and effective when their message is personal, and, since leadership is inextricably linked to followership, it is critical that successful leaders can relate to and learn from those around them. Fellows gain an appreciation of dealing with high-energy individuals and organisations, an understanding of management strategy, and team dynamics. Amongst the highlights is a retreat in the Swiss Alps, where they receive intensive individual coaching on personal and group leadership, especially with regards to persuasion and conflict. This is experiential learning: balancing theory and practice, experience and reflection, intellect and emotion, the retreat provides the opportunity for Fellows to set the learning agenda themselves.

The third and final pillar focuses on global leadership, asking how individuals influence organisations in their wider responsibilities. At the most basic level, Fellows receive a global perspective through their participation in regional meetings. Each year the Forum organises a summit in every continent (Antarctica excluded), where Fellows not only interact with the leading business, academic and thought leaders of the area, but also take part in visits and workshops on selected issues. They see a broader picture of countries’ economies, politics, and social structures, while receiving detailed insights into important topics affecting the regions. These events, in combination with classes on systems thinking, allow the Fellows to form a good understanding of global interactions: how the public and private sectors interact, how communities are built and shaped in developing countries, and how each region relates to others. A grasp of worldwide contexts is necessary to ensure that leaders’ decisions are not merely local, but global.

It should be stressed that the three principles are strongly interlinked. Furthermore, the education and training discussed above provide a mere insight into the GLFP: there are continuous opportunities for the Fellows to develop, including visits to corporate and technological sites; face-to-face discussions and workshops with academics, CEOs, and business leaders; and seminars and lectures on environment, sustainability and ethics. The point of the programme is that Fellows do not simply develop their own area of expertise, but are provided with multiple different inputs from a variety of fields and stakeholders in order to facilitate a shared understanding of the world and its problems. If this can be achieved, it will be easier to promote common solutions and values.

Why is the GLFP the best place to train leaders? To begin with, employment at the Forum already provides an arena for personal development that is difficult to match elsewhere. The positions that the Fellows take up at the Forum offer the opportunity to develop expertise, visibility and connections in their given field. The Fellows are responsible for managing high-pressure networks, for example between governments, civil society, business and academia, and are expected to have a sound knowledge of the critical issues within these areas. Constant interaction with these stakeholders enables the Fellows to refine their knowledge, and their exposure to leading policymakers, theorists and heads of state is unrivalled. This interaction takes place at the Forum’s regular meetings, but also in more intimate and informal settings. At the same time, the work of the Fellows provides the opportunity to actually make a difference to the world during their leadership training. The Fellows work on issues such as corruption, gender equality, energy and environment, global risks; over 150 reports were published by the Forum on these, and other, topics in 2011.

Furthermore, the combination of practical experience – the ‘performance imperative’ – and learning – the ‘development imperative’ – offered by the GLFP provides value that is not found in typical degree courses or executive programmes. While the performance imperative – Fellows are expected to perform their ‘day jobs’ to the highest of standards – requires that participants deliver results for the Forum’s initiatives in pressured, volatile and demanding conditions, the development imperative urges them to use their position to clarify and pursue their long-term objectives, either within or outside the Forum. While the performance imperative requires that they minimize mistakes and appear competent and in control under stress, the development imperative requires that they experiment and take risks, moving towards domains that are less familiar and comfortable. The ability to utilise this as a creative tension, rather than as a draining contradiction, is central to maximising the value of the Fellowship. Naturally, the Fellows receive significant support along the way, but since leadership is a concept that is difficult to teach, the GLFP supplies an otherwise unmatched experience.

The blend of exposure, access, training and performance means that levels of self and systemic awareness increase over the duration of the programme. Indeed, testing of the Fellows before, during and after the programme shows that development occurs across several levels. Fellows take the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCIET), the Herrman Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) assessment, and INSEAD’s Global Executive Leadership Inventory (GELI) assessment. Within the Forum, there are 360-degree feedbacks and regular performance reviews from line managers and the Dean of the GLFP. On completion of the programme, Egon Zehnder International, a global executive search firm, works with Fellows to help them choose the area in which they are best-suited to develop.

The GLFP can be regarded as a journey: a course affecting both the travellers and the environment travelled through. This is a useful metaphor for a three-year programme that aims at the advancement of practical skills, the acquisition of knowledge, the inspiration to pursue long-term personal and group development, and the strengthening of communities and shared cultures. Of course, the underlying assumption of the GLFP is that the world can never be fully understood, so it is wrong to claim that its graduates are perfectly prepared to confront global problems. However, it is reasonable to argue that the GLFP produces a more effective leader: someone who has a high-quality education, who has dealt with and learned from leading figures in society, who has a detailed but broad understanding of common problems, who can join difficult theoretical concepts with simple practical solutions, who can mobilise several different stakeholders, and who can motivate like-minded individuals to achieve universal aims. Graduates of the GLFP have gone on to senior positions in the Forum; others work in policy, either for governments or think-tanks; in industry, for example for chemical, mining and pharmaceutical firms; in strategic, political and financial consulting; some have started (or returned to) their own businesses or work for NGOs.

Consistent with the mission of the World Economic Forum, which is ‘committed to improving the state of the world’, the GLFP transfers the Forum’s multi-stakeholder approach to tackling global problems to its leadership programme. No other executive or organisational development programme provides the same level of access to leaders in government, business, academia and civil society. No other executive or organisational development programme equals the high-intensity, high-diversity framework that is both practical and analytical. No other executive or organisational development programme develops a batch of leaders ‘in-house’ only to actively encourage more than half of them to return to external employment. No other executive or organisational development programme is the Global Leadership Fellows Programme.

Prof. Gilbert Probst

Managing Director
Leadership Office & Academic Affairs