Davos Note: The Future of Leadership

Davos may be full of leaders – but that does not stop them questioning how their roles could change.

Davos may be full of leaders – but that does not 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 loose’; ‘we have to do things differently’; ‘this is a moment in history’; ‘there is a crisis of consent’ are phrases I’ve heard from academics, CEO’s and politicians. Yet whilst 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. These are:

  • Leading in a multi-stakeholder world. There is a broad agreement that leaders will increasingly be called upon to operate effectively in a multi-stakeholder world – these stakeholders could include governments, NGO’s, citizens groups and indeed the other businesses in their ecosystem. To do this leaders must develop networks across these stakeholders and indeed 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 with the process of gaining commitment across multiple stakeholders.
  • Leading in the society. Leaders will also be called upon to have a point of view about their role and the role of their business in society. Being a by- standing will not longer be sufficient. How leaders engage will be determined by their own unique personal values and indeed 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 indeed engaging employees in community activities. Its true of course that many are already doing this – but the call is to do more, and to do it more quicker and to scale with speed. It 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 a significant and probably 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 empathy with the challenges and dilemmas faced. It also needs the courage to understand that whilst 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.

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