Davos may be full of leaders, but that doesn’t stop them questioning how their roles could change. The pervading theme this year is of extraordinary change and challenge: ‘ we don’t have a moment to lose’; ‘we have to do things differently’; ‘this is a unique moment in history’; ‘there is a crisis of consent’ are phrases I’ve heard from academics, CEOs and politicians. Yet while there is broad rhetorical agreement, conversations about the means of action are less clear. In this Davos blog, I’m going to concentrate on what this means for leadership. In the panels I have attended and conversations I have had, there are two emerging themes which stood out beyond the normal leadership rhetoric of purpose, values etc.
- Leading in a multi-stakeholder world. There is broad agreement that leaders will increasingly be called upon to operate effectively in a multi-stakeholder world. These stakeholders could include governments, NGOs, citizen groups, and the other businesses in their ecosystem. To do this, leaders must develop networks across these stakeholders, and understand and deeply empathize with their position. The sheer complexity of these stakeholder relationships will also require them to operate successfully in ambiguous, often chaotic circumstances. These are complex times that will require patience when gaining commitment across multiple stakeholders.
- Leading in society. Leaders must also have a point of view about their role and the role of their business in society. Being a bystander will no longer be sufficient. How leaders engage will be determined by their unique personal values, as well as the core competencies of the businesses they lead. It could be reaching out into the immediate community, working actively on global issues such as poverty, or engaging employees in community activities. Though it’s true that many are already doing this, the call is to do more, to do it quicker, and to scale with speed. It’s about ‘thinking beyond’…
Reflecting on what these two themes mean for how leaders are developed, it strikes me that neither can be ‘bolted on’ to current leadership. Instead, they have to be ‘baked in’ to the very core of what a leader does and how they spend their time. For example, ‘leading in a multi-stakeholder world’ means making a significant and early commitment to spending time with people who are different. It’s only through these committed time periods that deep understanding and empathy can emerge. We know that empathic relationships and broad networks take time to develop. Similarly, ‘leading in the society’ cannot suddenly emerge from classical leadership training. Again, it requires a deep understanding and sense of empathy with the challenges and dilemmas faced. It also requires the courage to understand that, while the short-term stock market may require a leader to simply make a return on profits, the society in which they are a member requires much more of them.