The 3 pillars of responsible leadership for the 2020s

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presents a Green Deal plan

It's time for more responsible leadership. Here's how we can get there. Image: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Mariah Levin
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Leaders are waking up to stakeholder demands for responsible corporate action.
  • The new generation of leaders will prioritize purpose over profit.
  • Implementing this can help identify unexpected spheres of action.

The 2020s are unfolding in a complex context, and they haven’t even begun in earnest. At the end of the last decade, our world witnessed the Amazon and much of Australia burning, a hardening of identities and resurgence of nationalism, and a crisis in tech governance, dangerously confusing fact with opinion. In recent years, many communities have felt increasingly abandoned and distrustful of leaders’ ability to act decisively and beyond their personal interests.

A new decade signals a fresh start – a chance to be brave, take a stand and make the decisions we know are good for us, but are hard to swallow. Leaders can embrace a different approach to address the significant global challenges we face. Indeed, emergent trends in leadership suggest they must.

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According to new research from the Forum of Young Global Leaders, the Global Shapers Community and Accenture, there is a pressing disconnect between traditional models of leadership and public expectations. For example, while business executives value remaining at the forefront of technology and innovation, their companies’ stakeholders – consumers, workers, community representatives, etc. – value long-term vision, strong ethics and inspiring authenticity. As one example, these stakeholders worry significantly more about the negative side effects of technology than executives; they are one-third more likely to call upon businesses to develop “do no harm” tech strategies and policies than business leaders themselves.

Encouragingly, leaders are waking up to the concerns and demands of their constituencies. Policies around political campaign ads have shifted at Google and Twitter, demonstrating sensitivity to the influence social media has over public opinion. Meanwhile, 181 CEOs joined together in August 2019 to broaden responsibility of business beyond profit, to incorporate all stakeholders impacted – the general public. In the government sphere, the European Commission announced a Green Deal to realize a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050. The movement towards braver, more responsible leadership is building.

Rising leaders comprise the bulwark of this movement. The traits they value align closely to those the public desires to see in leaders. Rising leaders understand the importance of being responsive to stakeholder needs, communicating a clear mission and encouraging honesty. They also believe firmly that organizations should only grow if they also aim to improve societal outcomes; in the case of private-sector companies, this means a radical acceptance of responsibility not only to profit, but also to communities, workers and the global commons. This type of company privileges the power of its employees, customers and outsiders in inspiring loyalty, and recognizes its obligations to these groups. Rising leaders create and want to be part of “inspired companies” and organizations.

The Five Elements Model - Responsible Leadership
The Five Elements of Responsible Leadership Image: World Economic Forum/Accenture

What does it mean for current and future leaders to join the movement of responsible leadership more broadly?

1. Examine your responsibility

How does your organization and work impact the world, and where do your obligations lie? Get clear on your sphere of influence and build mission and purpose into it, so you can communicate to inspire through the stories you share with the world.

Simon Smiles, Chief Investment Officer for UBS Ultra-High Net Worth clients, saw an opportunity to introduce a broad network of employees, partners and clients of the bank to outstanding individuals working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The result was the Global Visionaries programme, which helps organizations scale innovative, sustainable solutions to critical global challenges. By taking up the responsibility to use finance as a tool for impact, this programme has fuelled investment in new approaches to health, environmental, educational and other gaps populations around the world face.

2. Truly engage your stakeholders

Take time to refresh your notion of who your key stakeholders are. In today’s world, they are broader than you previously imagined. How can you learn more about the interconnections you may not even be aware of?

When Krithi Karanth, Executive Director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, observed that effective wildlife conservation efforts resulted in an increasing human-wildlife conflict, she developed partnerships with new groups to address the challenges of growing tiger, elephant and leopard populations. She empathized with the animal threat to local communities’ livelihoods and wove a network of dedicated local partners, including government officials and social leaders across India, to build tolerance towards wildlife and co-design better access to government-mandated compensation schemes, which has resulted in greater consensus around conservation goals.


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3. Run your ideas by a different generation

Each generation brings its strengths to problem-solving, and we're at a juncture where we need all the strength we can get. Approach leaders across generations with humility and openness. We can only tackle our greatest issues if we all weigh into the solution.

Lindiwe Mazibuko, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Apolitical Foundation, equips next-generation political leaders with the skills and networks to engage and enter into dialogue and action with current politicians. Apolitical Academy trains people to participate in the public life of their countries to revive trust in politics and government and revitalize democracies. Particularly in areas of the world where political leadership is not necessarily representative, Lindiwe’s work encourages collaboration across generations to open new avenues for productive governance.

Our shared future is exciting and uncertain. At times, it is scary. We mark the start of a decade with a call to action for each one of us to take up the charge of responsible leadership – whatever your sphere of influence.

The Forum of Young Global Leaders works closely with a community of over 1,300 influential young people to shape the ways they use their power. We hope that leaders across the world will join us as we examine the leadership traits needed now in collaboration with Accenture Consulting.

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