Why the world needs systems leadership, not selfish leadership

Making the connections: the new generation of leaders see the world as a complex system

Lee Howell
Managing Director, World Economic Forum Geneva
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A recent headline, Narcissists Horrible People but Happy struck a nerve globally, at least on the social media channels that I follow. The story focused on research by Queen’s University Belfast that found narcissists to be happier, less stressed and depressed despite their grandiose, shameless and socially toxic behaviour.

Admittedly the study made me think of a shortlist of friends and family members who would help confirm these findings. But it also made me reflect on the kind of leadership we do and don’t need. What kind of leader combines great ambition with genuine selflessness and a strong desire for meaningful collaboration - and where do we find them?

The answer is a leader who has the temerity to transform a global system. The research of specialists Lisa Drier, David Nabarro and Jane Nelson has identified such a person as a system leader:

“System leaders apply an unusual combination of skills and attributes to mobilize large-scale action for systems change. Like many leaders, they tend to be smart, ambitious visionaries with strong skills in management and execution. Unlike traditional leaders, they are often humble, good listeners, and skilled facilitators who can successfully engage stakeholders with highly divergent priorities and perspectives. Systems leaders see their role as catalysing, enabling and supporting widespread action – rather than occupying the spotlight themselves.”

Complex systems attract their attention partly because we live in a hyper-connected world. But primarily, it’s because future generations will depend upon the inter-operability of multiple global systems in their daily lives. The notion that “connectivity creates systems that are integrated but also complex” is what also “drives the popular narrative about the future impact of the internet of things, big data and artificial intelligence.”

How then can we direct the collective attention of such leaders on the key systems, such as digital, trade and manufacturing, that connect us globally? In studying this question, my colleague, Sebastian Buckup, has identified a fundamental paradox: “Society needs large organizations to solve complex collective problems, but also fears centralized authority and decision-making.” Reflecting on the future role of business, he posits that:

“As a result, large corporations are more than stakeholders; they often govern the platforms upon which all stakeholders intersect. To avoid another public backlash, they must make these platforms serve us not only as consumers, but also as entrepreneurs, workers, and citizens. At a time of unprecedented global challenges – including climate change and high levels of inequality – this must include using the unprecedented power of platform leadership to catalyse global-scale solutions.”

The salient point here is that system leaders work more effectively if matched with the right platform – something akin to a popular software application operating much better on one mobile platform versus another. Now imagine the following: system leaders from academia, business, government and civil society to commit themselves to improve the future of biodiversity, technology governance, cities, mental health and other key global issues. And then picture an international organization that offers itself as a platform to catalyse and scale their efforts at system transformation. This is exactly what the World Economic Forum has done with its Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils, where groups of experts come together to think about what future we're heading towards, and what action we need to take to put us on a better path.

The self-important don’t always win. Selfless leadership can create systemic change that spreads happiness - instead of hoarding it.

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