From Brexit to Trump, the events of 2016 reflect a groundswell of anger over the way leadership works in our societies today.

“Part of the solution must be giving people the tools to make changes,” said Gemma Mortensen, Chief Global Officer of, a platform that allows people to start petitions and galvanise support for various causes. She was speaking at the World Economic Forum's brain-storming meeting in Dubai.

“It’s a moment where frankly we can't and shouldn’t rely on existing leaders”, said Mortensen. Digital platforms “can empower people who are otherwise disenfranchised from the political system” – providing, of course, that we make sure the internet is accessible to all.

Mortensen said that the key opportunity was to “pass political leadership down to where it’s most untapped.” We need to “let people know that they do have agency, that there is hope and possibility within existing structures.”

Ratna Omidvar, a Canadian Senator who emigrated from India, also spoke of the problems with politics as normal.

"I think political leadership is opportunistic and it has to be, because of the election cycle," she said. However, she said that "as an immigrant, I have three passports in my life, I want to see points of light in all this discourse about difficulties and betrayals."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel chats with a girl during a welcoming ceremony at Nizip refugee camp near Gaziantep, Turkey, April 23, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas  TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX2BCF8
German Chancellor Angela Merkel chats with a girl at a refugee camp in Turkey
Image: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

She praised Angela Merkel’s welcome to refugees as an example of "a leader who stepped up and behaved in a way that was values-based, that served the common good and not just the interest of her political party."

"Leadership is about taking hope from those who are charting a different path. I want to strike a note of optimism rather than complete despair."

Clearly, leadership means different things to different people – not least to organisations that provide professional leadership training.

Ngaire Woods, Dean, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, said academia had to do a better job at helping to produce the leaders of tomorrow.

Ngaire Woods

“Universities have been taking people through leadership courses that magnify their sense of entitlement, that tell people ‘I’m glorious, I’m going to unleash myself on the world.’”

The current system meant most business and political leaders fit a narrow mould, she added:

“You wouldn’t win a football tournament with a team of goalkeepers, so why in governments and companies do we not give ourselves a full team and play better?”

Without a doubt, the people who have suffered the most from failings of global leadership are refugees fleeing conflict and finding no safe welcome, let alone a chance to rebuild a dignified life. Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said:

“Trust into leadership evaporates with communities when they see that their problems are not adequately addressed, neither at the national level nor at the international arena.”

Image: UNHCR

Looking ahead to 2030, he said in an interview that leadership would work differently in the humanitarian sector:

“I think it will be a more innovative, a more flexible, a more agile, a more individualised system trying to respond in a targeted way to risks and challenges. It will be a more direct system, where those with a capacity to support and those who need assistance and protection services will be in closer, more direct contact.”