How world leaders got their start in work

What does it take to be a great leader? Empathy? Wisdom? Experience? Usually it requires all of these and more. But you sometimes acquire these attributes from unlikely sources.

Most people’s first full-time job is distinctly not their dream job. You’re just out of school or college and you need to make a buck. You don’t know what to do with your life so you take something random to try it out. Or you start off at the bottom rung of the industry where you want to work, making the tea and getting patronized for several months before realizing nobody will take you seriously as long as you remain ‘that new kid.’

But these experiences are powerfully formative. If you’ve never had a boss, you have no business being a boss. (Some would say that if you’ve never worked in a customer facing-role, you should never be a customer.) If you’ve never worked in the store room or churning out code or chopping vegetables, you’ll never quite recognized the gaps in your understanding of the business when you become the manager.

Likewise a world leader who was never broke, disrespected, who never walked among the people, who has never seen first-hand that being poor is expensive and that people act out of character when they’re desperate, will struggle to summon an understanding of what their population needs as a whole.

Fresh from looking at what world leaders studied at college, the folks at CashNetUSA have created a new set of interactives to show the first jobs of world leaders. From bus driver to international soccer star to a whole lot of military men, the experience of the people running our world today is varied and often unnerving. Let’s have a look at some examples – you can hover over the maps to reveal the name and first job of each country’s leader.

The first jobs of the world's leaders

North America

Jimmy Morales, the president of Guatemala, is one of two former comedians to currently be running a country. He claimed more than two-thirds of the vote in the 2016 election, running on the simple promise: “ni corrupto, ni ladrón” - “not corrupt, not a thief.” Previously, he had appeared on the lewd TV comedy Moralejas for 14 years, and has been accused of being racist, sexist, and homophobic.

Like Donald Trump, Morales mobilized the popular vote through a canny combination of pre-existing fame and appealing to the electorate’s base fears. And like Trump, despite promising to be an alternative to his ‘corrupt’ rivals, Morales’ government and family have been plagued with accusations of corruption.

As for Donald Trump’s first, pre-showbiz job, he was of course a (not very successful) real estate magnate. Before that, he helped out in the family business (whose wealth was founded on a gold rush-era brothel run by Donald’s grandfather) as a rent collector. Before that he supposedly collected bottles from his father’s building sites and returned them for cash. He then became a TV star, although it’s maybe just as well he never appeared on CSI.

Canada’s Justin Trudeau may have a dodgy approach to the environment and indigenous rights, but his otherwise trusted sense of right and wrong were developed in early roles as a nightclub bouncer, snowboard instructor, and radio host. His first full-time job was as a math teacher.

South America

That bus driver we mentioned above is Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela. In fact, he’s the only current world leader who started out in a customer service role. He was also a union activist and a rock star, so he knows a thing or two about the needs, struggles, and preferred guitar licks of the common people.

Unfortunately, many south American countries have former military people as their leaders. Jair Bolsonaro, the 38th President of Brazil, first served in the 9th Field Artillery Group, in Nioaque, Mato Grosso do Sul. You can’t help but wish he had served on a cruise ship instead. This far-right, anti-choice, anti-gay, once said that said that “the error of the [1964 to 1985] dictatorship was that it tortured, but did not kill.” Today he occupies himself by displacing indigenous peoples and selling off the rainforests.

Uruguay’s President Tabaré Vázquez is the world’s only former oncologist-turned-premier. The country’s first left-wing president is now in charge for the second time.


The second comedian on the list is Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky. He qualified as a lawyer, but never practiced. Instead, he has worked as a comedy writer and performer since his teen years. He famously portrayed a fictional teacher-turned-president in a Ukraine sitcom before winning the election for real. As with Morales, Zelensky was able to utilized his popularity and a nationwide disdain for the existing political figures. His predecessor also had a fun background: he was known as the ‘Chocolate King’ because he made his fortune manufacturing candy.

Lithuania’s leader and first female president is the “Iron Lady,” Dalia Grybauskaitė. She started work in a factory while she was studying political economy. However, it wasn’t an ironworks; her nickname comes because she is as hard as nails. Grybauskaitė has a black belt in karate and is known for her no-nonsense speeches. She cites Margaret Thatcher, the original ‘Iron Lady,’ as an influence.


America has had a former Hollywood star and a former TV show host as a president, but is yet to have its first accomplished athlete president. (Colin Kaepernick, anyone?) In Liberia, however, there is a very successful soccer player who has become boss.

George Weah played for his national team and also for top European soccer teams including A.C. Milan, Paris St Germain, Chelsea, and Manchester City. He won three Serie A titles, the same number of African Player of the Year awards, and a FIFA player of the year award. He also thrashed his political opponents in the 2017-18 election, later telling crowds, “I have spent many years of my life in stadiums, but today is a feeling like no other.”


President Battulga Khaltmaa is another sportsman. He started out in Sambo wrestling and is a judo master. He later became Chairman of the Mongolian Judo Federation, guiding the national wrestling team to an Olympic championship.

Maybe North Korea’s ‘supreme leader’ Kim Jong-Un was a ballet or tennis star, too. The country is so secretive that nobody really knows what he did before he became boss. However, it is thought that he worked for the Korean Workers’ Party or possibly the General Political Bureau. And not the National Ballet.


The prime minister of New Zealand has always been in politics. She started working as a researcher for the Labour Party that she now leads, as soon as she got out of college. Her political awakening occurred growing up in a poor area of New Zealand, where she witnessed “children without shoes on their feet or anything to eat for lunch.”

Finally, one more showbiz leader: Baron Waqa, the 14th President of Nauru, began his professional life as a composer. Perhaps like Trudeau, politics will become a family business – since his son has already started doing cover versions of his father’s songs.

How did your national leader get started in the world of work – and how do you think it shaped them to be boss of the country?

Read next: How Your Next Road Trip Can Make You A Better Leader (infographic)
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