Academics

Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Former President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos (UVA Parent ’17) Speaks about Leadership for M.S. in Commerce Executive Interview Series

The 2016 Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke about the challenges of successfully navigating a crisis and the elements of effective leadership.

Juan Manuel Santos

The McIntire School’s M.S. in Commerce Program recently welcomed former President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos as a featured guest of its new online Global Immersion Experience (GIE) course.

In a recorded conversation with Associate Dean for Global Affairs and Professor Peter Maillet, Santos discussed the coronavirus and its impact on healthcare systems and economies throughout Latin America.

The 2016 Nobel Peace Prize winner recognized for helping to negotiate a treaty to end his government’s 50-year war with FARC also spoke about the challenges of successfully navigating a crisis and the elements of effective leadership.

Santos explained the core values to leadership and the historical significance of actively managing for both the immediate situation and the long term. Citing a positive example from the current crisis, Santos noted German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her honesty concerning the difficulties posed while facing the ambiguity of leading during the pandemic.

Important Values in Leadership

Develop trust. You have to act in a way that you gain the confidence of the people, that they believe you, and that they are really thinking you are working for them and their well-being. If you don’t develop that trust, it’s very, very difficult to handle a situation like this pandemic.

Be empathic, humble, and honest. The most important value of any leader is a combination of empathy, humility, and honesty. You must be able to feel the anguish and the problems of the people you are leading. And you have to tell the truth. Don’t try to hide bad situations, and don’t give people false expectations, because that will backfire tremendously in a very short amount of time.

Know your destination. Now, with these values, with these conditions, you need to know where you want to go. I call it a port of destiny. And then tell the people, “I want to go with you here. And it’s going to be difficult, but let’s do it together.” And explain to them almost on a daily basis how you’re going to take people from A to B. I had a lesson that for me was very important when I was in the navy and they taught me how to sail.

The officer who taught me said, “Listen, to be a good sailor, you need to know where you want to go. You can use the winds—even if the winds are against you—to get there.” And that’s an important lesson for you as a sailor, but also for you as a human being in your business or as a leader in a country. You need to know where you want to go. And then when you know where you want to go, you work every day to try to get there. And in a crisis like we are going through, this is very important because the leader really has the opportunity to bring the country together.

“She came out at the very beginning and said outright, “I’m sorry to say that 70% of the Germans will be infected sooner or later. And then she said, ‘We have a problem here, so let’s manage it in this way,’” Santos said. “And I think she has handled that situation quite well, saying the truth with humility and admitting they don’t have all the answers, because the only certainty that we have in this situation is uncertainty.”

Regarding the future of the M.S. in Commerce students, on the verge of graduating, Maillet asked Santos what—beyond the pandemic—they might think about as they start their professional lives. Santos responded with an anecdote concerning a 2018 official visit he made to Austria, where he met the then recently elected chancellor, who was the youngest leader in Europe. Citing his effectiveness in fighting poverty and bringing peace to Colombia, the chancellor asked Santos for advice on how to lead.

“This was in Vienna—in this palace of the chancellor in Austria,” he recalled, “and I said, ‘My God, a Colombian president giving advice to a prime minister, a chancellor in Austria.’

“And I said, ‘I’m not really good at giving advice, but maybe I’ll give you one piece of advice: Sleep well.’

“And he said, ‘What? What do you mean, sleep well?’

“Yes, during my eight years in government—and even before—I always have slept well because I did what my conscience told me to do. So that when you go to sleep, you have peace of mind. You might sometimes make mistakes. You might sometimes be wrong. But if you make mistakes in good faith, if you are at peace with your mind, with your conscience, that is the best way to live—be it in business, in your personal life, or in government. And so my advice to the students is, after you graduate, be ambitious, take risks, but always sleep well.”

Despite downplaying his ability to offer useful advice, Santos provided some insightful guidance for the McIntire students, future business leaders, which we share here.

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