Different times call for different kinds of leaders. As the world grapples with huge shifts in the social and political landscape, 70 of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders (YGL) met at the Harvard Kennedy School for a two-week course on Global Leadership and Public Policy.

More than just expanding their policy focus, the YGLs were challenged to think deeply and critically about their own assumptions of leadership. They walked away with valuable lessons on what it means to be a “human-centered leader”.

1. The power of vulnerability

“Fifteen years ago, very few leaders would have dared to be vulnerable, to show themselves warts and all," said Arvind Satyam, Managing Director of the Global Public Sector at Cisco Systems.

“In business school, we would look at leaders like Jack Welch in corporate America – not the type of leaders that wear their heart on their sleeves, shed a tear, or dare to connect on a human level. Were leaders afraid that if they showed that side of themselves, that they would not stay in a rarefied air with their employees?”

To Satyam - who helps public sector organizations use AI and big data to combat the opioid epidemic, secure critical infrastructure in smart cities, and promote financial inclusion - embracing vulnerability is an asset.

“People want to work with you for what you believe in, not what you do. As a leader in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, you do not have to be perfect, but you have to be human. It’s okay to admit mistakes and say ‘Listen, I was wrong. I’m going to correct that.’ That behaviour starts with the leader, and it builds a strong, more resilient institution in the longer run.”

2. Expanding your network

Throughout his two weeks at Harvard, Satyam worked with a small, diverse group of other YGLs on personal and professional reflections. Many of his most valuable lessons on leadership came, not from lectures, but from honest, emotional exchanges with his peers.

“I opened up to people I never encounter in my professional circle – the executive director of an NGO, a political figure, a scientist, an officer of a sovereign wealth fund. I began thinking ‘I would not be able to have this meaningful of a conversation with an audience from my own circles.’”

Every aspiring leader needs a personal board of directors – a diverse set of people who validate you, but also challenge your assumptions, and think about your problems in a different way.

Developing a Personal Board of Directors
Image: Farrington Partners

Satyam said: “In order to think about problems in a bigger way, you need people who will step outside of your own frameworks. You need someone to say, ‘Are you even asking the right question?’”

3. Making space to spark creativity

Juan Jose Pocaterra, the Co-founder and CEO of Vikua – a platform that allows cities to automate and remotely operate urban assets – said the most valuable aspect of the course was the opportunity to open himself up to the creative process.

“Connecting everyday with other YGLs and learning from professors, gives you new perspectives on your own work. This overload of information sparks creativity. You get so much from different people, different angles. The monkey in the brain is working overtime.”

Finding time to step away from your day-to-day responsibilities can seem like a luxury, but it is crucial to continue to grow as a leader. “Taking time to be creative – you’re not allowed to do that in your everyday life.”

Pocaterra, who lives in Venezuela, shared the challenges of leading an organization during a time of economic and political crisis.

Having the space to embrace creativity, paradoxically, led him to something quite methodical. “In Venezuela, you cannot plan more than one day ahead – tomorrow could be completely different from today. That’s a fact. I had learned to be an intuitive decision-maker.

“My time here reframed my concept of decision-making. I can see how I can apply a procedural decision-making process, even in environments when you are overwhelmed with the unknowns.”

4. The importance of values-centric leadership

James Chau, a television news anchor and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, reflected on the importance of values-centric leadership. “Leadership is expressed in many ways and at many levels. But the Harvard module reminded me that leadership is absent if it does not possess a values system at its core, that acts as our moral compass. As leaders, we are not serving ‘offices’, but ‘people’ and ‘communities’ and the needs they represent.”

Chau’s work as the host of "The China Current with James Chau" is principally focused on the US-China relationship. He came away with the “critical reminder that it is sometimes more important to listen than it is to speak, and that flexibility in viewpoints presents a critical opportunity to build consensus and coalitions”.

For leaders in the era of Globalization 4.0, Chau sees a sense of responsibility. “Humanity will find a way to adjust to the new social and political conditions we face, and thus we live in a time of great opportunity to shape a global future, that is strong, safe and fair. Much is required of us, but it is possible for us to meet this challenge.”