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The world knows many leaders. Political leaders, business leaders, spiritual leaders. Depending on who you ask, you'll hear a different story about what their paths to power looked like and what they entailed.
What tipped the balance in their favor?
Education? Hard work? Sacrifice? Blood, sweat, and tears? Probably a pinch of all that and more.
The path to running a country or a global business isn’t easy, straight, or smooth. There are obstacles to overcome, and even more troubles appear once you gain power. Each leader has achieved what they have now in their own way.
Those success stories are inspiring. Some gain fame through momentous events. Others by the simple virtue of the country they lead. We wanted to showcase all of these factors, that’s why we decided to trace the careers of:
- Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Ukraine)
- Joe Biden (USA)
- Sanna Marin (Finland)
- Xi Jinping (China)
- Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand)
Stay with us and find out what lessons you can learn from the career paths of these five leaders. Be prepared for unexpected facts, surprising plot twists, gripping stories, and thought-provoking conclusions.
What is leadership in general? Is it serving people? Or is it making money and a career, while taking care of your own interests?
We can ask the same questions about leadership in politics. For sure, it has two faces. For some, it means a willingness to solve problems, giving voice to millions of citizens, and making a real change to their lives. For others, politics means a successful career, becoming part of the elite, or changing the law in one's favor.
However, like teachers, doctors, or managers, some do this job out of pure passion, and for some, it’s just a job. No reason is wrong as long as they do the job well, respect the law, and care about their citizens.
You are about to meet five exceptional leaders – exceptional in different ways. But they have one thing in common. They all became global giants. Check out how they got to where they are now.
The road must eventually lead to the whole world.
Despite the different paths they have taken and the choices they made, our politicians have achieved global success and power. The road they were on indeed led to the whole world. Analyzing their careers the conclusion is simply – there is no ideal path that should be followed to launch a successful career in politics.
However, to better understand the stories of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Joe Biden, Sanna Marin, Xi Jinping, and Jacinda Ardern let’s unpack their timelines. Let's see what points on the above infographic are hiding underneath.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy | President of Ukraine
From acting to the presidency, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a perfect example of how someone can make a 180-degree career change. However, the road from performer, actor, and TV producer to running the country has been quite tumultuous.
Despite graduating from law school, Zelenskyy did not choose a career in the legal field. He decided to follow his passions which were acting and performance. Comedies were what turned him on the most. The first step that marked his performance career was the creation of a team called Kvartal 95. From 1998 to 2003, this comedy troop conquered Russian and Ukrainian television. Yes, you read right. Russian too. As a native Russian speaker, Zelenskyy’s performance built a big fanbase in the country he is now at war with.
With time, his acting career started to thrive, he appeared in feature films (Love in the Big City, Office Romance. Our Time, 8 First Dates) and starred in TV series (Servant of the People, Svaty). In fact, in a case of art imitating life, Servant of the People told the story of an ordinary man with no political experience becoming president.
He wasn’t discouraged by some of his work being banned in Ukraine because he respected Russian culture. On the contrary as a performer, he broadened his horizons, becoming a TV producer. This culminated in him becoming a member of the board and the general producer of the TV channel Inter.
His entry into the labyrinthine world of politics came with the registration of a new political party called Servant of the People. It was named after the television program that Zelenskyy had starred in over the previous years. Despite denials about involvement in politics, just four months from the election, Zelenskyy announced his candidacy for president of Ukraine.
The actor playing an ordinary man becoming president was on the way to becoming president himself.
From this point, events moved quickly. He based his campaign on restoring trust in politics and confidence in the state. And despite ridicule from some quarters he won the hearts of voters and defeated his opponent in a landslide, securing 73% of the vote.
My election only proves that the citizens are tired of the experienced politicians who over the past 28 years created a country of opportunities - opportunities to steal, bribe, and loot.
After three years in office, he faced the greatest challenge and defining event of his presidency. The Russian invasion of Ukraine. Because of his leadership and rhetorical skills and taking a firm stance against the aggressor, Zelenskyy gained international recognition for protecting Ukrainian democracy. He became a symbol of freedom against the invasion and imperialism of the authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Path to Power
Joined a local comedy team, and later Ukrainian team “Zaporizhia-Kryvyi Rih-Transit”
Created and headed Kvartal 95, a comedy team
Obtained a law degree from the Kyiv National Economic University
With Kvartal 95 produced TV shows for the Ukrainian TV channel 1+1, and later for TV channel Inter
Started film acting career, starring in feature films and TV shows
Become Inter TV channel leader (member of the board and the general producer)
With Kvartal 95 donated 1 million hryvnias to the Ukrainian army fighting in Donbas
Opposed banning Russian artists and culture from Ukraine
Dubbed the voice of Paddington Bear
Played fictional Ukrainian president in Servant of the People
Registered a political party called Servant of the People
Announced his candidacy for president of Ukraine
Elected actual President of Ukraine, defeating Petro Poroshenko
Introduced law removing immunity from lawmakers, diplomats, and judges
Introduced some reforms to Ukraine's media laws
Criticized for a secret trip to Oman
Announced a formal ceasefire with separatists in Donbas
Updated referendum laws
Created a public registry of oligarchs
Led the country in the Russo-Ukrainian war
Joe Biden | President of the USA
From a boy who had to work as a maintenance worker to pay for his school to a man occupying the most powerful office in the world. This is the history of Joe Biden, who spent nearly a half-century in public service, announced the first woman and woman of color to serve as his vice president, and is serving now as the oldest U.S. president in history. A true calling you may say.
My father used to have an expression. He'd say, 'Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It's about your dignity. It's about respect. It's about your place in your community.
Joe Biden started his professional career as a law firm lawyer defending big businesses, then public defender with nearly all African American clients. But as it turned out, that was not his calling. Not long after he began working in the legal field, he registered as a Democrat. And here his real career started. Soon after he successfully ran for the 4th district seat on the New Castle County Council.
But he aimed higher. In 1972, he was elected to the US Senate, which he entered as a senator from Delaware, becoming the sixth-youngest senator in American history. During his six terms in the office, he focused on the environment, withdrawal from Vietnam, civil rights, mass transit, equitable taxation, and health care. As a senator, Biden passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act and Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, known as the Biden Crime Law.
In the meantime, he declared his candidacy for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. However, he failed to secure the majority of votes. But his time came 20 years later, in 2008 when he ran again as a presidential candidate. He had more luck this time. Barack Obama, who won the presidential election, nominated Biden for his second. The pairing was successful a second time too, winning re-election in 2013.
After leaving the vice presidency in 2017, Biden became an honorary professor. However, he has not forgotten his political career. In 2019, he started his next presidential campaign. His career culminated in his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States.
Joe Biden’s Path to Power
Did maintenance work to pay for his fees to attend Archmere Academy in Delaware
Achieved degree in arts from the University of Delaware
Obtained a law degree from the Syracuse University
Admitted to the Delaware Bar
Worked as a public defender
Elected to the New Castle County Council
Elected to the United States Senate
Elected member of the Senate Judiciary Committee
Chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee
Applied for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination (unsuccessfully)
Accused of plagiarizing a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock
Worked as an adjunct professor
Helped to pass the Law Enforcement Act, known as the Biden Crime Law
Voted to acquit during the impeachment of President Clinton
Served on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee
Served as Obama's vice president
Served the second term as vice-president
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Became President of the United States
Withdrew US troops from Afghanistan
Involved in Russo-Ukrainian war
Sanna Marin | Prime Minister of Finland
Meet the world's youngest prime minister. At the age of 34, Sanna Marin took the office of Finnish Prime Minister. But her story doesn’t begin here.
Sanna briefly worked in a bakery and as a cashier while taking advantage of Finland's education system to finally get her degree in Administrative Science. She quickly discovered her interest in politics and joined the Social Democratic Youth, where she later served as the organization’s VP. But her career was just gaining momentum. At 27, she was elected to the Tampere City Council. This opened the door for her to pursue a career in the upper ranks of government.
Marin was chosen second deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, and soon after was elected to the Finnish Parliament as an MP from the electoral district of Pirkanmaa. Four years later, she was reelected and became the Minister of Transport and Communications.
From this point, events moved rapidly. Marin was soon nominated by the Social Democratic Party for the Prime Minister's office. She won the majority of votes, officially becoming Prime Minister of Finland, at that time the youngest serving state leader. And despite her youth, she is set to lead her nation through momentous change. After decades of neutrality, Finland is set to ditch its non-aligned status and join NATO.
We have a lot of work to do to rebuild trust... I have never thought about my age or gender. I think of the reasons I got into politics and those things for which we have won the trust of the electorate.
Sanna Marin’s Path to Power
Worked in a bakery and as a cashier
Graduated from the Pirkkala High School
Joined the Social Democratic Youth
Served as vice president of Social Democratic Youth
Elected to Tampere City Council
Became chairman of the City Council
Elected second deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party
Elected to the Finnish Parliament as MP from the electoral district of Pirkanmaa
Achieved a degree in Administrative Science from the University of Tampere
Became the Minister of Transport and Communications
Nominated Prime Minister of Finland
Elected head of the Social Democratic Party
Appeared on the BBC's 100 Women List
Selected by Forbes as one of The World's 100 Most Powerful Women
Became a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum
Appeared on Time magazine's Time100 Next theme issue
Controversy over public spending
Announced Finland’s application for NATO
Xi Jinping | President of the People’s Republic of China
Chairman of Everything, Democracy Oppressor, Chinese Modern Emperor, Master of Censorship or Shouzhang. Call him what you want, but face the fact that he is a leader of the world's second most powerful country. Ladies and gentlemen, Xi Jinping.
Here comes the story of the true American Dream. If only Xi Jinping was American.
Xi Jinping’s story starts with the Cultural Revolution that cut short his secondary education. Due to his father's imprisonment, young Xi was sent to work in Liangjiahe Village as a manual laborer. The situation didn't reflect his ambitions. To change it, he decided to join the Communist Party. After several unsuccessful attempts, his candidacy was finally accepted in 1974.
Here starts his tough road to the top-first acting as a local party secretary then moving on to more senior roles like party chief of Shanghai. His potential was quickly noticed, and from now on, his career started to thrive. Promotion after promotion led him to the highest position in the country–the presidential seat.
Becoming a president marked the next stage of his career–striving to fulfill his own “Chinese dream”.
Our responsibility is to rally and lead the whole party and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups in continuing to liberate our way of thinking, carry on reform and opening, further unleash and develop the productive forces, work hard to resolve the difficulties the people face in both work and life, and steadfastly take the road of prosperity for all.
And here are his reforms. Centralization of power, censorship, no press freedom, taking control over the army, the cult of personality, and no limits on presidential terms lead him to be known as Chairman of Everything.
Xi Jinping’s Path to Power
Suspended education due to Cultural Revolution
Worked as a manual laborer in Liangjiahe Village
Joined the Communist Youth League of China
Joined the Chinese Communist Party
Achieved degree in chemical engineering from the Tsinghua University
Worked as a secretary in the vice-premier office
Promoted Vice Governor and later Governor of Fujian
Achieved doctorate in law and ideology from the Tsinghua University
Became party secretary in Zhejiang
Became party secretary in Shanghai
Selected a member of the standing committee of the CCP’s Political Bureau
Elected Vice President of China
Named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission
Elected President of China
Run anti-corruption campaign
Began the centralization of his power
Created a cult of personality
Took full control over the Chinese army
Introduced censorship of the Internet
Removed term limits for the president and vice president
Ran administration reform spree
Announced one of the predators of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders
Opposed war sanctions against Russia
Jacinda Ardern | Prime Minister of New Zealand
Have you heard of Jacinda Ardern? New Zealand’s youngest Prime Minister in more than 150 years. Moreover, the world's second elected head of government to give birth while in office. However, never, ever call her Cindy.
Back in the early days of my political career, I was called Socialist Cindy. I just hate the nickname, Cindy.
Now, when we’re properly introduced, let’s take a quick look at Jacinda’s professional career.
Her first steps in politics were made during New Plymouth MP Harry Duynhoven's re-election campaign. After college, she tried her hand as a researcher in the office of Prime Minister Helen Elizabeth Clark and later as a senior policy adviser to then-British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Soon she was selected as the Labour Party candidate for MP of the Waikato district. Even though she failed to secure the Party’s win, Jacinda entered parliament as a list candidate.
Over those ten years as a representative, she tried to make a change and provide a strong voice of justice and be an advocate for children, young people, and women.
Thanks to her dedication to her nation, Jacinda was elected Prime Minister in a coalition government with the Greens and the New Zealand First Party. Her election campaign was held in the company of such positive press coverage, that it was called the “Jacinda effect” or “Jacinda mania”.
Her most significant struggles while in the position? March 2019 mosque attacks in Greater Christchurch, volcanic explosion on remote Whakaari/White Island, and the coronavirus pandemic. And she managed all of them with aplomb, strengthening her positive, almost iconic image.
Among the policies she supports are the compulsory study of the Māori language in schools and the decriminalization of cannabis.
Jacinda Ardern’s Path to Power
Raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Joined Labour Party
Archived degree in PR and Political Science from the Waikato University
Worked as a researcher in the office of Prime Minister Helen Elizabeth Clark
Worked as a volunteer in a soup kitchen in New York
Worked in the Cabinet Office as a senior policy adviser to then-British Prime Minister, Tony Blair
Became President of the International Union of Socialist Youth
Chosen as Labor's Party candidate for MP of the Waikato district
Entered the Parliament as a list MP
Appointed to the Regulations Review and the Justice and Electoral committees
Became Shadow spokesperson for Youth Affairs and Justice
Elevated to the Shadow Cabinet
Performed as DJ at Laneway Festival
Nominated as the Labor candidate for the Mount Albert by-election
Elected deputy leader of the Labour Party
Chosen Prime Minister of New Zealand
Appeared on the British Vogue cover
Appeared on the TIME100 list and Person of the Year
Called the second-greatest thinker for the COVID-19 era
Awarded Harvard's Gleitsman International Activist Award
Elected PM for the second term
Has a flightless insect named in her honor Hemiandrus jacinda
Awarded Harvard's honorary degree of Doctor of Law
The educational pathways of world leaders
Let’s face facts. Not all politicians are educated to be politicians. You've met Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a law graduate, and a former actor, now serving as the President of Ukraine. You also came across Joe Biden, a lawyer, now known as POTUS.
Finland's prime minister started in a bakery and as a cashier. Any degree? Yes, in Administrative Science. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's PM and holder of a PR and Political Science degree, not only helped out at one of New York's soup kitchens but also proved herself as a DJ.
Finally, Xi Jinping, President of China, worked as a manual laborer. But later he graduated in chemical engineering and later law and ideology.
They are far from a political-related education background. But what are the best degrees for a career in politics? In theory, that would be political science, public administration, internal and international relations, or public policy.
But in practice, it turns out that any degree is good. Does this mean that our politicians don't have the right background, experience, and knowledge to be a politician? No, or even if so, only at the beginning of their political careers. Does that mean they are doing their job poorly? Not at all.
But in real life education of the world's leaders is a mixture of different disciplines.
The Congressional Research Service, a public policy research institute, revealed the educational background of Congress members in a 2020 study. The report provides some interesting facts.
- The overwhelming majority, of Members of Congress have a college education, 96%.
- The dominant professions of Members are public service/politics, business, and law.
In the 116th Congress, excluding judges, and former mayors or state or territorial legislators, there were:
- 95 members that have worked in education including teachers, professors, instructors, school fundraisers, counselors, administrators, and coaches.
- 27 farmers, ranchers, or cattle farm owners.
- 12 bankers or bank executives.
- 21 insurance agents or executives.
- 11 engineers.
- 6 software company executives.
- 1 physicist.
- 1 chemist.
This is an American-based angle. Now let's take a more global perspective. A good example that complements our discussion is the British Council 2020 study of global leaders.
“Most leaders have degrees in social sciences and humanities, with over half holding an advanced degree. The prevalence of social sciences continues into post-graduate education with half of the leaders holding advanced-level degrees. In the 30-country sample, the number of leaders with undergraduate degrees in social sciences (44%) is at least three times as large as any other course of study (e.g. business 14%; engineering 12%; humanities 11%).”
However, what lies beneath each field category? According to the British Council:
- Social Sciences: Economics, International Relations, Political Science, Anthropology, Psychology, Communications, Law
- Business Fields: Business, Marketing, Management
- Engineering Fields: Electrical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Agricultural Engineering, and Architecture
- Humanities: Languages, Literature, History, Philosophy, Religion, Journalism, the Arts
No matter world leaders’ age or gender, social sciences always take first place.
Also, when it comes to the world’s regions, social sciences are the most prevalent of all disciplines. However, of course, there are small differences between social science participation in each country. For example, they are more prevalent among leaders in Nordic Countries (53%) and Latin Europe (54%), while they are less prevalent among leaders in Confucian Asia (35%) and Middle Eastern Countries (35%).
What other interesting facts does the report highlight?
- 56% of politicians and civil servants have a social science undergraduate degree.
- Less than 1% of leaders don’t have any degree.
- The least popular studies among leaders are general studies, military, education, or health fields.
The British Council’s study only reinforces the idea that great world leaders come from a variety of higher education backgrounds. University simply doesn’t define a person’s future career. You don’t need to graduate in business or management, physics, or mathematics. When it comes to politics, social sciences and humanities still allow you to reach the top.
So if you are a person who is in the process of planning a higher educational path, and worrying about your choices, think about this.
...the greatest part of a road trip isn’t arriving at your destination. It’s all the wild stuff that happens along the way.
It doesn't matter if you are now an actor, lawyer, entrepreneur, or teacher. You can become a world leader if you want to.
But not just like that. No one says the path to leadership is easy and straightforward. On the contrary. You may never succeed!
However, remember that your education or work experience doesn’t mean that your career path has already been determined, and cannot be changed. Look at Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a successful actor who until a certain point probably didn't even think about a career in politics. Or at Sanna Marin, who, while working in a bakery, wouldn't have thought that one day she would hold one of the most important offices in her country.
Still don't believe me?
Take a look at the final statistics.
According to a CashNetUSA study from 2018, only 21% of world leaders studied politics or economics. What about the rest? Well, 17% studied law. But the remaining 62% of world leaders graduated from a number of different fields including communication, business and finance, education, engineering, and even medicine.
There is no single path to leadership. And certainly, no school can teach you how to run the world.
- Biden, Joe, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics
- Britannica, Jacinda Ardern’s Biography
- Britannica, Joe Biden’s Biography
- Britannica, Sanna Marin’s Biography
- Britannica, Volodymyr Zelensky’s Biography
- Britannica, Xi Jinping’s Biography
- British Council, The Educational Pathways Of Leaders. An International Comparison
- CashNetUSA, What the World Leaders Studied at College
- College Census,10 best degrees for politics
- Congressional Research Service, Membership of the 116th Congress: A Profile
- Finnish Government. Sanna Marin: Prime Minister
- President of Ukraine, Official Website, Volodymyr Zelensky’s Biography
- The White House, Joe Biden: The President
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