19 Leadership Lessons from Leaders of the World's Largest Student-Run Organization

I've always been intrigued by the concept of leadership. 

How does a single individual move a group of people towards a cause or action? Over the years, our world has seen different types of leaders. Some create action through coercion, perhaps a threat of job loss. Others are collaborative, working together with others to pursue a mission. 

Regardless of leadership style, there are important lessons that are vital to leading and managing groups of people. 

I learnt almost everything I know about leadership in the four years I spent in a student-run organization. 

AIESEC is the world's largest student-run organization, located in more than 110 countries and over 80,000 members. The entire organization, with 1000s of university chapters, is completely student-run. From the global operations in the Netherlands to a local university chapter in Costa Rica, members are typically under 25, completing their undergraduate degree, all while running the business operations of an international organization.

The organization exists to develop globally-minded leaders. In its essence, AIESEC operates an international internship program. It provides students with opportunities to travel to countries for professional work and volunteer placements around the world. Students handle the entire operations, from business development, sales, marketing to finance, human resources and logistics. 

AIESEC SFU winning the Spirit Keg as Most Spirited at Western Regional Conference 2009

AIESEC SFU winning the Spirit Keg as Most Spirited at Western Regional Conference 2009

The four years I spent at AIESEC Simon Fraser University were the most insightful experiences I've had. I joined the Corporate Relations team in 2009, and was immediately thrown into a world of meeting professionals and trying to close partnerships. I failed. Many, many, many times. I didn't sign my first partnership until 16 months after joining. Somehow, I was selected to join the Executive Board, and lead the Corporate Relations team in 2011. This was my first experience leading a team. I felt fulfilled. I loved one-on-one conversations with my team members, hearing their goals, and helping them find ways to achieve their goals.

AIESEC SFU winning the Spirit Keg again, as Most Spirited at Western Regional Conference 2012

AIESEC SFU winning the Spirit Keg again, as Most Spirited at Western Regional Conference 2012

As a student leader, my biggest failure took place in 2012, while taking on the role of President at AIESEC SFU. Two things happened. First, there were many bouts of losing confidence in myself. As a non-business student leading a business club, I sometimes questioned whether I was the right person to lead the organization. I felt disconnected, like an outsider. Ultimately, after reflecting on this a year later, I realize I was using this as an excuse to not do super, freakingly amazing work that I knew I was capable of.   

Secondly, I forgot to listen to myself. By focusing on everyone else's needs, I began neglecting my own needs. I was slowly burning out, and ignoring all signs of it. By the end of the year, I was exhausted. Mentally, emotionally, and even with my health took a toll.

The 'nutty' AIESEC SFU Executive Board 2012

The 'nutty' AIESEC SFU Executive Board 2012

Thankfully, there's a happy ending to this story. At the beginning of my term as President, I had selected an all-star team. Experts in their field, who I knew I could count on. Together, we managed to win the 'Most Improved Local Committee' award, out of 28 university chapters. We picked up a few other awards, including Communications Excellence and Financial Sustainability. We were also finalists for Outstanding Contribution to National Development and Alumni Relations Excellence. 

I'm thankful for this experience I had. I learnt the most valuable lessons in leadership.

  1. Don't let your fears and self-doubt get in the way of doing amazing work. 
  2. You can't lead anyone if you can't lead yourself first. Listen to yourself and pay attention to your needs first. 

I also left the organization with great friends from around the world. Each of them have unique experiences. Some of them have continued their leadership experience with AIESEC in other countries, and others are starting up their own business. This week, I turned to them to hear more about their leadership experience. I asked them to answer a single question: 

"As a student leader who led a chapter of the world's largest, student-run organization, what is the single leadership lesson you can share with other student leaders and entrepreneurs?"


1. Be adaptable

"A great leader needs to be adaptable.  The biggest mistake you can make is to be unwilling to change course, or start over when something is not going your way.  That willingness to forge past mistakes and turn learnings into progress is what leads to eventual success"

Peter Gallivan, Global Vice President of Marketing of AIESEC International in Rotterdam, Netherlands (2012) 

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2. Go beyond the job description

"A great leader is someone who recognizes that a team member's responsibilities aren't determined by his job description but by his passion."

Sam Turner, President of AIESEC Edmonton in the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada (2012)


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3. Learn to accept both failure and success

"Every step you take in life defines who you are as a person. Learn from your mistakes and don’t be afraid of failure because each experience teaches you the important lessons to succeed in life.

You should learn to accept both failure and success, and view each obstacle as a stepping stone to the latter. Don’t be disappointed by what you couldn’t accomplish; move on to the next thing you’re passionate about and make the most out of it. Do what you love and challenge yourself."

"Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it." -Charles Swindoll

Munessa Beehuspoteea, President of AIESEC Ryerson in Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada (2012)


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4. Take the first step

"Being a leader can be daunting, but it is because you chose to be a leader that will inspire others to do the same. Don't be afraid to go out of your comfort zone and take that first step." 

Alex Shum, President of AIESEC York at York University in Toronto, Canada (2012)


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5. Build a strong team around you

"Amongst the many things I learned during my one-year term as President of AIESEC Windsor, I found that building up a strong core executive team was essential in the positive progression of the chapter as a whole. A hard-working and dedicated executive team resulted in motivated and loyal members who collectively, contributed to the overall development of the local chapter." 

Kristie Luk, President of AIESEC Windsor at Windsor University in Windsor, Canada  


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6. Stop trying to please everyone

"Authenticity is more important than anything when it comes to leadership. The more you worry about who you are, and about being somebody who pleases everyone, the less you are able to effectively do what is needed."

Kevin Cornwell, President of AIESEC in Canada (2013)


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7. Believe in your abilities

"If I could share one thing from my experience as a student leader in AIESEC, I would tell other students to believe in their current abilities to do great things.  I work for a fortune 100 company in the US now and many of the practices we had in place as an organization were on par with those my company incorporates into their management practices.  Students can influence other students, businesses, and the community as a whole in great ways simply by taking the initiative and having a purpose behind what they do."

David Palkovitz, President of AIESEC McGill at McGill University in Montreal, Canada (2012)


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8. Learn to accept yourself before leading others

"Leadership is a deeply emotional journey of self discovery and humility. Only when we are ready to accept who we are, will we be ready to inspire and connect those who are around us.  Leadership is not so much about influencing as much as it is of allowing our quest for purpose to transform ourselves and transform others.  Leadership is the constant quest to understand what drives us and what drives others."

Franklin Morales, Global Sales and Marketing Manager of AIESEC International in Rotterdam, Netherlands (2010) 


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9. Consistently plan and think about your vision

"Leadership is about consistently thinking into the future and guiding activities and people towards this vision. It's also about seeing what people could become and helping them become their best selves."

Derek Vollebregt, Global Business Development Manager of AIESEC International in Rotterdam, Netherlands (2013)  


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10. Share your vision with others

"Your colleagues need to fully understand your vision if you expect them to give the most of themselves. I firmly believe that a shared vision and deep personal relationships are the strongest incentives to motivate people."

Samuel Marion, President of AIESEC HEC at HEC Montreal (Université de Montréal) in Montreal, Canada  (2012)

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11. Pick and choose the innovations that will make most use of your time

"Your most precious resource is time; you will never recover the time you spend nor the time you waste.  When you take on a leadership role, the opportunity cost of that time is critical to your next steps as an individual and your organization as an ongoing entity. I chose to invest 730 days as president of our committee towards intensive personal development, introducing innovation into each project I could take part of, and meaningfully engaging new members into the vision of our organization.  When I finished my terms, I went on to pursue a new venture that demanded the skills I had fostered, and left the organization with a leadership pipeline and a benchmark of success.  As for innovations, many died and some thrived."

Carson Kolberg, President of AIESEC Laurier at Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada (2011-12)

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12. Remind yourself of the impact of your work

"One of the greatest fruits of your labour as a leader is seeing the endless hours, stress, frustration, and tears make an impact - even if it's on one single individual. Developing another person to be a better leader, a better human being, is worth all the trouble."

 Jason Yung, National Vice-President of Business Development at AIESEC in Cambodia  (2013)


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13. Be vulnerable and honest

"As leaders, we often try and strive to seem perfect and invulnerable. I realized the importance of vulnerability and honesty, and the role it plays in leadership, in order to build team foundations and a healthy environment for a team to foster and work together."

Seulmi 'Sue' Ahn', National Vice-President of Talent Management at AIESEC in Canada (2013)


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14. Be open to change

"Don't try to confine yourself to one idea of what it means to be a leader just because you read it from some 'Leadership for Dummies' book or heard about one that worked for someone else. If I've learned anything in AIESEC, it's that your leadership style should develop as you grow, and should adapt to reflect what works best for your team to succeed!"

Kai Wong, President of AIESEC Queens at Queens University in Kingston, Canada (2012)

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15. Go outside of your comfort zone

"One of the most important lessons I learned from my time at AIESEC is to always strive to work outside of my comfort zone. Whenever I took on a task that was outside my comfort zone, I always learned immensely more that if it was a task I had a high level of comfort with. Do not be afraid to fail and put yourself out there because outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens."

Rustam Kasimov, President of AIESEC McMaster at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada  (2012)


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16. Be humble

"My single most important leadership lesson is that a leader needs to be absolutely selfless and humble. Therefore, as a leader, your single most important goal should be to create opportunities and inspire individuals to be great and unique leaders better than yourself."

 Constance Wong, President of AIESEC Ottawa at Ottawa University in Ottawa, Canada  (2012)

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17. Lead by example

"The best lesson that I have learned as a leader was to pull you team instead of pushing it to get the work done. If you want your sales representative to go on sales call, don't just put pressure on him to do it, go on sales call with him. LEAD AS EXAMPLE"

Simon Lemieux, President of AIESEC Sherbrooke at Universite de Sherbrooke in Sherbrooke, Canada (2012)



18. You can't do everything alone.  

My biggest lessons from my experience can be resume by that quote :''Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." from Helen Keller.

Imagine that you are the coach of a rowing team and you are trying to assemble the best team. You hire the world's best paddler which will be a great addition to the team. But if the other team members can't keep up with his pace, your team won't be able to perform at his full potential. To adjust the situation you will work on their communication, their rate, position in the boat, you will ask them to help each other. Perhaps the best paddler is not the best communicator, someone else might be best to set the pace.

Different set of skills of each member of the team allows them to complement each other and also allow them to learn new skills. Skills that are not related to the work itself can also benefit the team. For example, a person in charge of the web site and who knows the best restaurants in the city can be responsible for the social event, an important factor in the success of the team."

Vladmir Vallès, President of AIESEC UQAM at Université du Québec à Montréal in Montreal, Canada (2011-12)


19. Celebrate small success

 "Don't sweat the little things and lose sight of the big picture.  Stay passionate and celebrate even the small successes."

Julie Park, President of AIESEC Calgary at University of Calgary in Calgary, Canada (2012) 


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Do you resonate with any of the lessons here?  

What are some of the leadership lessons you would share?