When Oru Ogbo was asked by his employer last year if he wanted to join a new program to train and support young leaders across Europe, he didn’t hesitate. As a Nigerian who came to the UK ten years ago and worked with PwC, he wanted to share his own experiences and hear different perspectives.
“I wanted to listen to other people’s views on big issues: climate change, geopolitics, misinformation,” he says. “And to help shape the leadership model for the next generation. I discovered that there were completely different views on leadership, diversity and how immigrants should fit in.
He joined a first cohort of volunteers in their twenties, from many countries and professional backgrounds, who contributed to developing Europe101, a free series of online workshops and lectures supported by a networking platform. To date, as its fourth cohort has just begun, it has over 1,000 participants. They discuss their own views and challenges; discuss leadership concepts related to purpose, inclusiveness and trust; and make commitments to each other, thinking about how they will change and act in the future.
“We use a leadership program to connect a generation and give these young people permission to be leaders,” says Julia Middleton, who developed the project, which is overseen by her charity Common Purpose. “Their perception is that leadership is something static and institutionalized to maintain the status quo. We challenge that, to make them much more fluid in their thinking. They realize that the role of the leader is not only to support [the employees] but do the task.
Europe101 reflects a wider demand from individuals and employers for new, flexible approaches to training and bonding across national borders – and at a time when aspects of UK government policy have moved in the direction opposite, from Brexit to cuts in international exchanges and volunteering programmes.
One example is the UK’s 2020 decision to withdraw from Erasmus, the EU-backed scheme aimed at helping students typically spend a year at a university in another country. It was replaced by the more modest Turing scheme of short-term placements for Britons, with no reciprocal arrangements for nationals of other countries coming to the UK.
“The best thing the UK could do would be to join,” says Juan Rayón González, president of the Erasmus Student Network. He cites benefits such as better communications, team spirit, cross-cultural understanding and civic engagement. “Erasmus graduates vote more in European elections. This turns them into more active citizens.
Other British-backed programs have also been cut. For example, the International Citizens’ Service programme, run by Voluntary Service Overseas to provide 12-week internships, was phased out in 2020. “It nurtured active citizenship, boosted your confidence, gave you better job chances and improved your well-being,” says Philip Goodwin, Managing Director. “We talk about global Britain and opportunities around the world, but there’s no money behind them. It’s a huge mess.
Programs like these can have the greatest benefits, but require expensive periods abroad. This restricted the variety of people who could participate, while raising environmental concerns about the carbon footprint of the travel involved. The coronavirus pandemic has fostered alternative online approaches: it has forced business schools and other institutions to adapt.
The growth of programs like Europe101 suggests that the approach will expand. For employers such as Danny Bisland, director of the Scottish Football Association, who has named a number of participants, the benefits are clear.
“We’re seeing a huge shift from teams to large, community-led organizations,” he says. “Clubs in Scotland have pivoted incredibly quickly during Covid from football to supporting food banks, the elderly, community care. It will only continue. The role of the young person is so essential: he can talk to his peers. We are really interested in promoting the integration of young people in decision-making.
Nicolas Kloos, a German mechanic who took part in Europe101’s weekly workshops, says the sessions helped him better understand the importance of taking others’ perceptions into account. He thinks networking, in particular, might offer the greatest long-term benefit. “It’s not what you know that matters, it’s the people you know and the relationships you build,” he says.
Marshall Marcus, Secretary General of the European Youth Orchestra, which also sends participants, says: “There are all kinds of reasons to hone leadership, and young people feel our generation has screwed it all up. They want to be part of the decision making.
He believes that with so many pressing issues, such as the climate crisis, the program highlights the complexity of a leadership role. And the more culturally diverse the participants, the more valuable the learning experience, he says.
Marcus also adds that the flexible idea of “liquid leadership” behind the program is essential across Europe – and essential in his own music profession.
“We need to move away from an old style of hierarchical leadership. When musicians play together, it’s amazing how they are able to take the lead at the right time, hold it and pass it on.
The next test for Europe101 and other ‘lightweight’ online programs will be the longer-term impact, including whether participants retain and sustain the connections they make.
Arguably, relationships are easier to build when people are together in person, sharing an experience for a longer period of time – Erasmus participants, for example, would often live and work together.
But since his involvement last year, Ogbo says he has stayed in touch with a number of those he has met. He left PwC to create his own educational start-up and become an “ambassador” to recruit other young people in Europe101. He sees an urgency in his generation to get involved in solving the biggest problems of society.
“We came out with a general feeling that leadership should be flatter and that very hierarchical structures were a thing of the past,” he says.