Why Study Abroad Will Make You a Better Leader

By Jay Moran

Expert Contributor


When you ask college students why they are interested in studying abroad, they usually offer a variety of answers:

“It’s an opportunity to see so many cool places – art, architecture, museums, world-class cities, beaches!”

“I’ll get to learn another language and culture!”

“It’s a great way to meet new people!”

“It’d be so much fun! — I heard the bars and clubs over there are amazing!”

While each of these observations might be true – and compelling – there is a less obvious reason why study abroad is a smart move: It will help make you a better leader.

Here are 3 specific reasons why.


Step out of your Comfort Zone

One of the most important actions that young people can take to improve their leadership potential is to step out of their comfort zones. This means dealing with unfamiliar situations, facing ambiguity, and being forced to re-evaluate deeply held assumptions and beliefs.

Doing so helps to sharpen a person’s judgment. It trains one to mistrust snap decisions and to gain a broader appreciation for the complexity of modern life. Increasingly, leaders today need to operate in a global context, and developing more advanced decision-making skills is a critical piece of that.

I recently discussed this issue with VF Corporation CEO Eric Wiseman. VF Corporation is the company that owns Wrangler, Lee Jeans, The North Face, Reef, Vans, Nautica, Timberland and other well-regarded brands.  Wiseman told me that giving rising stars within his organization an opportunity to step out of their comfort zones is an essential part of the company’s leadership development efforts. In fact, when I spoke with him, the company had just created a new position in China in order to give a star manager valuable training. “He has the potential to be one of the top 10 executives in the company,” Wiseman said. “But before that can happen he needs two or three years in a very tough environment. China will stretch him.”

Study abroad is a great way to step out of your comfort zone early in life. Living in a foreign country will force you to assimilate different values, customs, and language. If you choose to live with a local host family, these differences will confront you every day. Resolving basic needs will often be challenging and frustrating. This is a good thing.


Learn about Yourself

When you step out of your comfort zone, you can learn something important about yourself. This doesn’t always happen, of course, because self-awareness requires serious reflection. Like anything else, understanding what makes us tick – our strengths, weaknesses, fears, ambitions, passions, prejudices, and so on, takes a lot of work. But deep, meaningful reflection is more likely to occur when people are removed from their usual routines.

Gaining self-knowledge is extremely important for leadership. The inscription at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi reads “Know Thyself,” and there is probably no better advice for an aspiring leader. People who possess a strong sense of self are more directed. They are adept at unleashing personal passion. And leaders who have a good understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, passions and blind spots, are more likely to have productive interaction with others. In his best-selling book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, former Medtronic CEO Bill George writes: “Those who are comfortable with themselves tend to be more open and transparent—which includes sharing their vulnerabilities.”

Along these lines, self-awareness is one of the key components of what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence,” which basically refers to the self-mastery skills that enable an individual to operate effectively in group situations. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this skill for leaders. Indeed, based on an extensive study of corporate leaders, Goleman concludes that emotional intelligence is far more important for executive success than being “smart” is. He writes: “When I compared star performers with average ones in senior leadership positions, nearly 90 percent of the difference in their profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than cognitive abilities.”

Studying abroad is an excellent way for young people to build their emotional intelligence. Living in a foreign country can be tough and liberating at the same time. Students are put in an environment where they are encouraged to ask themselves questions such as: How well do I operate in unfamiliar surroundings? What aspects from my life back home have I taken for granted? What are some other possibilities that I didn’t previously consider? What do my new experiences tell me? What do I want to do with my life? What kind of work interests me? Who am I?

Through this reflection, students will build self-awareness and increase their potential for leadership.


Learn about the World

In his classic book On Becoming a Leader, leadership guru Warren Bennis writes, “To become a true leader, one must know the world as well as one knows one self.”

What he means is that leaders are not solitary beings. They must interact with others. They are called upon to offer vision and perspective, and this requires a robust, mature, constantly evolving sense of the external environment.

In this respect, all good leaders are active learners. They have curious minds, and they use their curiosity to discover new ideas, frameworks, perspectives and inspiration. Some learn through creative hobbies, such as painting or music. Others write fiction.

Studying abroad is extremely valuable because it combines two highly effective ways of learning about the world: study and travel. As Bennis writes: “Travel is another kind of learning. All the clichés about it are true. It does broaden. It is revelatory. It changes your perspective immediately.” Mark Twain said: “Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”

It is no coincidence that most leaders are also extensive travelers. For example, two of America´s most celebrated founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were inveterate travelers.

Study abroad is a great way to jump-start one’s curiosity, learn about the world, and prepare for leadership. The opportunity is unique because it is not superficial. Study abroad is not tourism. While they may not always realize it at the time, students who are fortunate enough to spend an entire semester overseas are getting an experience that will change them forever.

Perhaps one of the best testimonials for study abroad comes from best-selling novelist John Irving, author of books such as The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp. Irving participated in a study abroad program in Vienna in 1963-64, and the experience made a deep impact on him. He once wrote, “My year [of study abroad] was the single-most important year of my education, or perhaps more broadly, my growing up … I became so excited by the city and its history and, outside of [our professor’s] philosophy courses, was so encouraged by him to explore Vienna more. I know I feel permanently attached to the city, and in the time in my life, that I feel I first became vividly aware of other people’s lives all around me.”

When young people ask me what they can do to become better leaders, I tell them to travel abroad. Travel. Study. Learn about yourself. Learn about the world. It will make you a better leader, and it will lead to a more fulfilling life.


Jay Moran is a business professor and leadership expert based in Barcelona, Spain.  He is co-author of the book Why Are We Bad at Picking at Good Leaders? (Jossey-Bass 2011).


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