Leadership in a time of COVID: 4 lessons from Young Global Leaders

DALIAN/CHINA, 09SEPT09 - Participants captured during a session at the Young Global Leaders Summit 2009 in Dalian, China 08-12 September 2009.Copyright <a href="http://www.weforum.org">World Economic Forum</a> (<a href="http://www.weforum.org">www.weforum.org</a>/Alfredo Carlo)

Lessons in leadership. Image: World Economic Forum/Alfredo Carlo

Mariah Levin
Executive Director, beVisioneers: The Mercedes Benz Fellowship
Sarah Shakour
Project Specialist, Forum Foundations, World Economic Forum Geneva
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As we face many more months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision taken by leaders - of governments, companies and other organisations - have a bigger impact than ever on the way we live and work.

A virus that is unfamiliar, global, and highly contagious has introduced new criteria for nearly every choice we make - from bringing our children to school to going food shopping to even the daily reminder of wearing a mask. In this context, we look for leaders who inspire hope, exemplify responsibility, and set the rules for a new type of decision-making.

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To understand the factors that inform effective leadership and decision-making now, we asked a sample of Young Global Leaders for their insights. These individuals, already exceptionally accomplished in their fields, have benefited from opportunities to enhance their impact over a five-year leadership journey through the Forum of Young Global Leaders. They are now graduating our program into a world of even greater complexity, and provide unique perspectives on four key lessons for leaders at this historical moment:

  • Cooperate and learn beyond boundaries.
  • Humanize the other.
  • Practice humility in uncertain times.
  • Model the courage to change.

Cooperate and learn beyond boundaries

While much of the world remains partially physically confined, the problem solving needed to overcome this pandemic and its damage must defy national, sectoral, education, and other boundaries. Leaders across industries must look to learn in unexpected and atypical ways.

Penny Abeywerdena

Penny Abeywerdena, the Commissioner of International Affairs for the City of New York, has seen the city through some of its darkest moments this century. She believes that COVID has shown us the power of cooperation at every level, from neighborhood organizing to collaboration beyond borders. In understanding the common challenges that face societies in the coming years, she notes the priority to identify and replicate best practices and policies, whether a vaccine distribution or climate action. The overwhelming nature of this pandemic might naturally narrow our frame of reference; instead, we should actively work towards opening our minds to the possible solutions that exist around us.

Humanize the other

Remote work, lockdowns, and school closures have affected us all, albeit differently. While some have the means to weather the stress and logistics of drastic change to daily life, others are submerged by the sudden unemployment, health concerns, and severe isolation.

Mariana Luz

Mariana Luz leads a foundation focused on early learning in Brazil, as the Chief Executive Officer of Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal Foundation. As an advocate for healthy child development, she has seen the blurring of professional and personal lives as a fledgling opportunity for leaders to openly recognize and speak to unity. The challenges faced through our new context can be used to recall commonalities across human needs and experience. “Going forward, may we not forget that, as individuals, we are one and the same.” The role of a leader now includes connecting people to strengthen them.

Practice humility in uncertain times

While traditional leadership speaks to the importance of exuding confidence, it does not always emphasize the importance of humility. Leaders are not infallible, and the days of enduring deference to leaders are over. As anti-discrimination movements have shown, many leaders have fallen into the trap of assuming their judgment is authoritative.

Ada Osakwe

Ada Osakwe is the Founder and Chief Executive of Agrolay Ventures, a venture investment firm for technologies that transform food systems. In her work, she connects with people all across the agricultural food chain, from smallholder farmers to large restaurant chains and logistics companies. Her work has shown her that leaders’ humility - accepting that they themselves don't have all the answers - enables empathic curiosity, a power needed to determine the right road ahead.

Model the courage to change

This pandemic has taught us the importance of agility - working from home while teaching children, maintaining relationships while social distancing, and finding innovative ways to stay occupied during the lockdown measures. Very few facets of our former lives remain unscathed by COVID-19. The degree to which people’s lives are changing can fuel mass burn-out and fear, and it is a leader’s task to model behaviour.

Brian A. Wong

Brian A. Wong is the Managing Director of Seacliff Partners, invests in early start-ups driving solutions to social challenges. As an early employee of Alibaba, and living in China during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, Brian has seen how organizations can lead responsibly and turn a challenge into opportunities that provide optimism, determination, and purpose. Brian believes that, as a result of the upheaval we are collectively experiencing, it is ever more imperative for leaders to demonstrate how to respond to the rapidly changing needs of society.


These lessons drawn from young leaders who inhabit influential positions now, and will continue to in the future, provide guideposts for all of us looking to navigate our new normal. As individuals who have already achieved success in their respective fields, we celebrate the Class of 2015 and 2016 Young Global Leaders who support one another in catalysing positive change for the betterment of their community and our society.

The implications of COVID-19 has amplified existing risks like the climate, healthcare, economies, but has also highlighted additional systemic challenges. The positive news of a potential vaccine to be delivered in the coming months offers the possibility that we may shift to a post-pandemic world. However, adjusting to the new normal will require strength and resilience, and building back better will only occur through new insights on leadership.

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