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You cannot learn leadership?

Since last September I’ve been taking part in a leadership trainee program in addition to my normal work of a business intelligence analyst at Stora Enso. 4 modules of the program are behind including getting to know senior leaders of the company, leadership training and learning how to do business in China at IMD Business School and a shared value project in China. And know, after just 3 week at home, I am away again. This time in Brazil where I am going to spend 3 months working on a challenging project in business controlling.


The trainee program has certainly brought a lot of bright impressions: learning, meeting people, team work, traveling… But looking at what the experience has been so far, I must say it is very different from what my picture of “leadership training” was just a while ago. Having a bachelor’s degree in management, I’ve studied quite a lot about leadership: leadership styles, differences between leadership and management, motivational theories, etc. The conclusion I drew from these studies (probably, not exactly what my professors meant to teach!) was that you cannot learn leadership from text books: either you are born with these skills or you can to acquire them with experience.


What was I thinking about when applying for the trainee program? No, I didn’t expect any textbooks, but I supposed we would have role-plays about leadership and some small practice projects to manage. But the learning experience was quite different. So, what are the lessons future leaders need to learn?


Lesson 1. Ability to adapt. When living in your home country or in a foreign country with high quality of life and tolerance towards foreigners like in Finland, life might seem very easy and comfortable. Yes, you travel. But traveling in Europe or to other typical holiday destinations is very smooth and easy. You might think you are an experienced traveller and know a lot about foreign cultures. But do you? When the trainee program brought me to China, I was astonished how challenging the experience was: different food, different communication style, different selling style, different attitudes to doing business, leadership, child-raising (to everything!), different traditions…


To be successful, you should be prepared to leave your comfort zone and adapt to new circumstances. And it is not only about cultures. It can be a new boss, new job, new anything!



Lesson 2. Teamwork. I learnt that sometimes what is best for the team can contradict your ego. Yes, you think you are right but you need the patience to listen to other team members. This can be challenging: some people are shy, there can be language barriers… But listening is necessary to learn from others, find the best solution and keep the team spirit high.


Teamwork is not easy. You might feel hurt when you or your idea is criticized or the piece of work you’ve done is not used in the final solution, but sometimes you just need to suppress your personal feelings and think only about the success of the team.



Lesson 3. Raise questions and challenge. I learnt that high power distance so usual in the culture I am coming from is evil. No matter how young and unexperienced you are, you should dare to ask bold questions and challenge the way things are because the newcomers are the ones able to see things with fresh eyes.



Lesson 4. You have to have fun at work. Not fun in the meaning of making jokes and browsing the web instead of working, but fun in the sense of the joy of having interesting and challenging work, achieving goals, traveling and learning from other cultures and developing yourself. Yes, it might be challenging to find a new job, but it doesn’t mean you have to waste 33% of you day doing a job you don’t enjoy. If new inspiring challenges don’t come to your table, you can always come up with them yourself: propose an idea for a new project, go to a professional conference, start a professional blog!


Those are some of my reflection on what leadership lessons I received in the trainee program. Do you know any other lessons every leader should learn? And can you actually learn to be a leader at all or is this a skill you have to be born with?


Best regards,