Gianpiero was featured in the December, 2017 issue of Work magazine. In an original interview by Georgi Gyton, he discusses the corruption of cosmopolitanism, the risk of leadership eugenics, and where to find the courage it takes to learn and lead.

Cosmopolitan, with a twist

Mistrust in authority is rising and that, says management thinker Gianpiero Petriglieri, means leaders need to give work value and meaning.

A self-confessed ‘cosmopolitan’, Gianpiero Petriglieri is the epitome of an educated and well-travelled individual (albeit one who believes his command of English is down to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen). That he is thanks to his parents, whose childhood experiences in southern Italy during the Second World War gave them first-hand knowledge of the devastation of nationalism. Neither spoke a foreign language and both spent their entire adult lives in the same place, but they had different plans for their son.

“To them there were two things that mattered: one was to get an education and the other to travel and learn another language,” he says. “The idea was that if people from different countries worked together and learnt about each other, they were less likely to bomb each other.”

That nationalism – fuelled by discontent with globalisation and resentment of immigrants and intellectuals – has resurged in Europe and the US is a major disappointment, but neither does Ptriglieri recognise today’s cosmopolitanism and the “tainted luxury good” it has become. “People now talk about cosmopolitanism in such a different way to how I understand it. To me it was never about globalisation. It was never to abandon any sense of roots and belonging,” he says. “It has transformed from an attitude of being curious about others and compassionate towards them, into an exclusive identity.”

Currently associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead, Petriglieri directs the business school’s flagship executive education programme for emerging leaders. He is also a conference speaker and, for the first time, this year joined the ranks of Thinkers50’s most influential management thinkers (at number 47).

His award-winning research and teaching focuses on what it means and takes to be a leader. While this may be relatively simple to explain, it is much more difficult to practise day in and day out, he says – “what makes it hard is that it requires sacrifice”.

Take some of the leaders we most admire, like Nelson Mandela or Steve Jobs. They were people who were not just passionate, but devoted to the point of obsession to one single story – one that people felt was a story of possibility, says Petriglieri. “In many ways they made the ultimate sacrifice. They sacrificed themselves; that’s what made them authentic.”

Here he talks to Work. about how we can enable leaders to be better teachers, what the trend for nomadic professionalism implies about wider society and why there are so many bad leaders.

We are in the so-called post-truth era. How does this play out inside organisations?

Mistrust is contagious. Even if you are the most well-meaning person, if you show up as the new manager in a team that has had a difficult experience previously, you often have to face mistrust that you have not caused. If you are not willing to accept that and work with it, then it’s going to be hard for you. The worst thing you can do as a leader is resent people for scrutinising you.

In survey after survey, there are two things that we hear are lacking: one is trust in leadership and the other is a sense of meaning and engagement. For me these are two sides of the same coin. If leadership is not trustworthy, people may feel it is sensible not to engage too much in case they get hurt and, if they feel they might be betrayed at any moment, they will keep an eye out for other opportunities.

The primary outcome of lack of trust in leaders is the epidemic of meaninglessness. People need to feel they are being led and that they have got some kind of connection to a story about the future. I think we all look for the same thing – we all want to know that what we are doing is personally meaningful and that it creates value for others. Good leaders help us see that our work does both.

There is so much money invested in leadership development, so why are there so many bad leaders?

Before the US election, I wrote a piece about Donald Trump. In many ways he represents an extreme caricature of what we have called leadership all along: someone who succeeds, gets things done – no matter what it takes to do it – and stays in the public eye. Very often that’s what we teach prospective leaders to do, and we wonder why so many of them are narcissistic.

Leadership often goes wrong because it asks the question ‘what do I want from people?’ Rather than asking ‘what do people need from me?’ The majority of people do not work in the kind of organisations for which leadership development was designed. Most practices and theories were created at a time when businesses, like the army or large multinational corporations, were very stable and hierarchical, and there was work for life. Leadership development was designed to make you stand out in an organisation that was homogenous and had a shared culture. Today, organisations are still vertical, but they are a lot more fragmented. If you just give people the skills to stand out, without the connections they need to be trusted, then it will not be effective.

Some companies are using DNA testing to ascertain the leadership potential of staff. Is it such a bad idea?

In history, every time we have gone down the route of looking at genetics to try and prove that some people deserve more status than others, I would argue it has usually not been the brightest of times. I think you have to be incredibly careful that you are not using science as a way to legitimise your stereotypes.

However, this kind of testing is really an extreme version of what all companies do with leadership development. They create a set of competencies and then they say the leaders are the people that most clearly embody them. Suddenly you are not actually looking for leaders, you are looking for people who act as they are expected to by those who decide what leaders should look, talk and act like. 

I don’t deny there are personality factors that can impact on whether you might be a good leader. There is an element of intellect, of courage and of skill, but there is also, inevitably, a fit with the situation. A leader can be brilliant in one organisation and then move somewhere else and fail to get the same success. Why? Well we know that DNA doesn’t change, so that is not a factor. And while this kind of testing might claim to know you better than you do, it can’t imagine you to be better than you are.

Much has been written about the need to humanise leadership. How does your thinking on it differ?

Humanising leadership has been talked about in the sense of knowing yourself as a complex being, and in finding your passion, purpose and values. But it is also about the connections you have with other people in a certain context. At the end of the day, who cares if you are self-aware if you lose that awareness once there is pressure or temptation? The more pressure we are under, the more we rely on impulse, instinct and habit. And leadership is essentially a multiplier of pressure.

Psychologist Dan Gilbert says that we are perhaps the only primates to have the ability to imagine the future and can therefore forgo immediate reward for future benefit. That’s what consciousness does, but what makes us human is also that we have moved from being a biological being to a cultural being. We have become members of a society.

One thing that leadership development needs to give you is the ability to use your consciousness when it would be much easier to rely on habit. The other thing you should do is to sustain your connections even when you feel you could actually do the job on your own.

How can leaders better understand the power they wield and use it to greater effect?

One of the most universally acknowledged findings in the social sciences is, the more power you have, the harder it is to remain connected to common sense. Power tends to dehumanise – that we have always known. How to use power responsibly should be at the core of the good education of leaders.

In order for leaders to consider the broader context or consequence of using their power, we need to give them definitions, theories and role models, because ultimately we become leaders in the same way that we become citizens, lovers, parents or teachers – through role models.

If you look at the great religions from a social science perspective, they are extremely successful and enduring social movements. Their leaders have been able to convince millions of people that being kind to your fellow being is actually good for you and for everyone else.

The humanising of leadership can be done no matter what the size of the business. But it cannot only be done through personal relationships. You need to devise a culture and incentives in which decency, openness and kindness are the norm.

How has our relationship with work changed?

Today there are companies that are more powerful than nation states, and that actually determine the fate of those states. It could be said that this supports the argument that they are in a better position to address the needs of people than their democratically elected government.

There are a lot of people who feel that if they want to live a decent life economically, be a good citizen and a member of the community, and to feel that their life has a sense of meaning, then their best shot is to do it at work. In many ways, business occupies the place that the church or army used to. For thousands of years, people have relied upon religion for their spiritual needs, politics for their social needs and business for their economic aspirations. Today we want work to provide us with our economic wellbeing, to allow us to be valuable contributors to society and to give us a sense that we are leaving something worthwhile behind. But part of the reason we are sometimes disappointed with work is that we expect so much from it, and it can’t always deliver.

What does the trend for nomadic professionalism tell us about how work is changing?

I use the term nomadic professionalism to describe what I think is a more common and widespread relationship with work, which is that employees have a stronger and stronger connection to their work – it defines them and is a central part of who they are – and a looser and looser affiliation to their organisation. This relationship to work has always been the case for traditional professions, such as doctors, accountants and photographers, but for more of us work is becoming something that we take with us. We are psychologically relating to work more and more in the way that a painter or poet does. We use the term workplace, but we are moving towards the idea of workspace.

The organisation has a role in developing this mindset. We tell people that they need to find a sense of meaning and a connection to their work. The ideal of the nomadic professional is to have mobility and meaning. If I have those things, I am protected from the uncertainty in the current labour market because I can take my work with me wherever I go. But organisations are relatively conservative structures, and so the idea that you should organise for mobility is almost counter-intuitive.

How can we help leaders to be better teachers?

A question that often comes up in leadership development is ‘how can we be sure that people learn what we want them to?’ Many executives’ anxiety is that they want to empower, but at the same time control the learning. Learning is really like love – if you try to control it too much it dies. The issue is not getting control right, it’s getting freedom right.

Fifty per cent of learning is when you give something you have – skills – to other people. The other 50 per cent is giving people enough space to learn whatever it is that they need and want to.

We tend to be more preoccupied with the first half than the second. If your child came home from school and told you that they were never allowed to ask a question or develop their own thinking, you would be horrified. So why is it that when organisations design learning, all they think about is what knowledge they have and how it can be transmitted?    


“The workplace holds our body much longer in our lifetime than our mothers or our lovers ever will. The question is, what kind of hold is that: a choke, an embrace, a loose handshake or a distant wave?”

“The greatest red herring in leadership is style. People will forgive you murder. They will forgive any kind of style. What they will not forgive is inconsistency and lack of care for their concerns and aspirations.”

“We have always considered people who are nomadic as morally questionable. Today we say that unless you are willing to be mobile, you will never get to the top. That is completely new.”

Performance has two meanings: achieving a stated goal and embodying shared values. The first is the way an engineer understands performance, the second the way an artist does. You need to ace both kinds or you are not a leader at all.”

“Most people don’t like unpredictability and change. Organisations where people feel a sense of opportunity in the face of uncertainty are giving people the most valuable asset that you can have in the contemporary economy.”

“There is a lot of research to suggest that it is actually good to lose a certain amount of talent, if people leave with the sense of having got something of value. I think it’s very hard for organisations to make that leap in thinking.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of Work., the magazine for senior members of the CIPD. Interview by Georgi Gyton