Handling the humanity of leadership

Abigail Noble
Chief Executive Officer, The ImPact
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In an increasingly complex, decentralized and fast-paced world, leadership boils down to one thing: responsibility. Leadership is a responsibility to understand one’s impact on others, and a responsibility to focus on bringing out the best in others.

Despite how simple this sounds, I find it increasingly difficult to embody. It requires tremendous willpower to accept that other people’s failures are in some part due to our action or inaction. Likewise, success is a culmination of factors, many of which are beyond our control. While this can make things feel futile, it can also inspire us to connect more with others and make sure we all feel engaged in and by the world around us. As it turns out, the only way to feel less helpless is to begin helping.

My understanding and comfort with the complexity of leadership in an unequal world was tested two weeks ago during a World Economic Forum Global Leadership Fellows programme. Fifteen colleagues and I participated in an exercise that reflected the global problem of income inequality. The exercise started with each person receiving an envelope with different poker chips. We could trade with others to improve our lot. After a few rounds, trade stalled. The “poor” had nothing to offer the “rich”. Some felt disadvantaged because they started with less or because the trading rules didn’t favour them. Several “rich” made what they felt were fair concessions to equalize the playing field. Yet, to “the poor”, this wasn’t enough. Tensions mounted, arms crossed and voices rose. We could not connect, and no one was getting their needs met. Nearly everyone felt misunderstood. Most surprising of all, this happened in less than an hour and within a close-knit group of friends.

While I believe equal access to opportunity should be a fundamental human right, I saw how the pursuit of equality can create more politics and unfairness.

Linked to this complexity is an important responsibility of leaders: we may never reach our goals or see our principles spread wide, but we should never stop trying by using better approaches. Sometimes it is the pursuit, or the responsibility to pursue, that makes the difference.

We learned from our professors, Dan Shapiro of Harvard Law School and Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD, how habits such as active listening, collaborative yet assertive problem-solving, principle-based decisions and trustworthiness in follow-through are essential to being an authentic global leader in a complex world. When we protect the dignity of others, respect their interests and perspectives, and take responsibility for the impact of our actions (or inactions), we can form meaningful relationships with almost anyone.

Important progress happens when developing meaningful relationships with adversaries. They no longer seem unreasonable or unmanageable, but instead become human. To be human is to have both flaws and the ambition to rise above the flaws.

We all have the capacity to be aware individuals and authentic global leaders: it begins by us taking responsibility for our impact on others, which can be simultaneously the most simple and the most difficult thing to do.

Abigail Noble is Head of Latin America and Africa for the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and a Global Leadership Fellow with the World Economic Forum  @ab_noble

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