What 6 Weeks Of Traveling The World Teaches You About Global Leadership

Global leaders adapt their business styles to different cultures and understand different economies—here’s how MBAs at Washington University in St. Louis learn to do just that

Lungile Tshuma has a purpose—that’s how he puts it.

Born and raised in the City of Kings and Queens in Zimbabwe, Lungile attended high school in Wales and college in the USA, and spent three years from 2013 to 2016 playing professional rugby for Zimbabwe in South Africa. Traveling so much was a lot of fun, he says, but when he looks at his future, he sees social enterprise in Africa taking center stage.

“My purpose is to create a platform for Zimbabweans and other Africans to express their gifts and talents without compromising their identities,” he explains. “Probably through financial inclusion, impact investing, and leadership consulting.” 

It’s a big dream—but being an impactful leader isn’t easy, and despite his years of globetrotting as a student and athlete, Lungile knew his career ambitions would require international leadership experience different from what he already has.

To get it, he chose the MBA program at Washington University in St Louis’ Olin Business School. He’s recently returned from the six-week global immersion that kicks off the program and he says he’s already learned quite a bit about what it means to be a truly global leader.


“Who I am in sport is who I am in business” What 6 Weeks Of Traveling The World Teaches You About Global Leadership - WashU Olin MBA

The opportunity to experience business in three countries before starting his core classes drew Lungile (pictured right) to choose WashU Olin for his MBA. Now, in retrospect, he says the experience was tougher—and more rewarding—than he could have imagined.

“My favorite parts of the immersion were just getting to be with real businesses and looking for real solutions,” he says.

“There were some tough asks. We had to assess the Shanghai market to see if doughnuts would work for a potential investor who wanted to open up a doughnut shop. We went to similar cafes and bakeries doing on-the-ground research.

“Looking for a solution was invigorating, and it was the perfect amount to push someone out of their comfort zone.”

This need to interpret unfamiliar environments—and be assertive about those interpretations—was an important lesson for Lungile. For years, his confidence was founded on his strengths as an athlete. The immersion made him realize he didn’t need to build up that confidence from scratch in business; the skills he already had were easily transferable.

“My biggest takeaway was that if you feel confident in one field, and that’s your identity, it doesn’t mean it’s not transferable to the current field that you’re working in,” he says. “Who I am in sport is who I am in business—it’s a different medium, but your identity does not wash away.”


What 6 Weeks Of Traveling The World Teaches You About Global Leadership - WashU Olin MBA

Lungile takes notes on the Olin MBA global immersion


Leadership is a case of finding out what people valueWhat 6 Weeks Of Traveling The World Teaches You About Global Leadership - WashU Olin MBA

Susie Bonwich (pictured right) is a classmate of Lungile’s in the WashU MBA. Like him, she has returned from the global immersion with new confidence in her ability to adapt her skills to different contexts.

“I didn’t have as much culture shock as I thought I was going to,” she says. “There were more similarities than I had originally thought, both in Spain and in China.”

Susie’s background was as a trainer in the restaurant industry in the US; going into two very different business contexts and discovering she could transfer her skills from back home was a confidence boost. It also helped her approach the differences with more assurance.

“Leadership styles are different among cultures in terms of what leaders value,” Susie explains. “In order to be successful in other countries, you have to understand and appreciate that—for example, in China, they don’t want to get straight down to business. You have to build a relationship beforehand. If you don’t do that, you won’t be as effective.”


What 6 Weeks Of Traveling The World Teaches You About Global Leadership - WashU Olin MBA

Susie (left) conducting market research at a bakery


Good leaders listen

Ultimately, the most important lesson Susie says she’s learned in the last six weeks is how important it is for leaders to listen—especially when they’re leading a project in a new environment.

She would counsel any aspiring global leader to take the time to get to know people first instead of diving right in with your own way of doing things.

And it’s not just about listening to the people you’re doing business with, either. Both Lungile and Susie remarked on the relationships they formed with their peers over the six weeks of traveling. 

What 6 Weeks Of Traveling The World Teaches You About Global Leadership - WashU Olin MBA

According to Andrew Knight, professor of organizational behavior at Olin (pictured right), this is as important a leadership lesson as any he can teach in class.

“From their experience leading their peers—and from being led by their peers—students should see the difference a leader can make through everyday ‘small acts,’” he explains.

Leadership often doesn’t come down to a speech made before a crowd; instead, Andrew says, it’s the everyday actions that enable others to add value—from crafting a plan, to checking in on a teammate, to simply saying “Thank you” for good work. 

By living and working together in new and challenging environments on the global immersion, Olin MBA students learn this lesson first-hand—and for Lungile and Susie, it’s made a big difference to how they work, and how they see themselves as leaders.