• The COVID-19 has challenged leaders around the world with complex, changing uncertainties.
  • Members of the Forum of Young Global Leaders have demonstrated what it takes to be a responsible leaders during times of crisis.
  • Responsible leaders must prioritize trust, invest in local communities and address systemic issues.

The past 18 months haven't been an easy time to be a leader.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenge after challenge to lives and livelihoods around the world, putting a extra scrutiny on leaders and elevating the importance of responsible leadership even more.

Effective leaders have regularly adapted their behaviors and priorities to meet changing and challenging unknowns. They have taken stock of shifting health and political landscapes, modified organizational strategies, and sought to discern opportunity from crisis. Faced with difficult trade-offs, these leaders have met heighted public scrutiny and learned tough lessons.

At the Forum of Young Global Leaders (YGL), our team has supported hundreds of dynamic leaders over this period. Faced with uncertainty, we've seen them increasingly turn to a fundamental question: How can we create the world we want our children to inherit?

In addressing this question, common behaviors have emerged. In advance of our Young Global Leaders Annual Summit on 4-6 October, here are three observations on responsible leadership.

Responsible leaders prioritize building trust

Trust is the starting point for impact, and responsible leaders recognize that the pandemic has made it more difficult to build the trust that enables partnership and action. Online formats are sufficient for sharing information, but they do not achieve the same degree of relational understanding. A recent study found that virtual environments mask non-verbal cues and inject disruptions to intent listening, eroding opportunities to build trust.

Factors influence effective teamwork in the virtual world.
Factors influence effective teamwork in the virtual world.
Image: Frontiers in Psychology

In response to this challenge, responsible leaders are adapting their relationship-building strategies. YGLs have set up virtual peer groups that meet regularly to help maintain - and expand - trusted relationships. Convening monthly, they discuss one another’s work, the circumstances in each of their locations, and ways they can help one another. Beyond offering personal support and insight, these groups serve to uncover mega-trends so leaders can anticipate future impacts on their work.

In several cases, peer groups have led to identifying important opportunities to serve the global public interest. One example of this is the CommonTrustNetwork, an initiative begun by Paul Meyer (YGL 2005), Jen Zhu Scott (YGL 2013) and Thomas Crampton (YGL 2005), with more than 30 YGLs serving as trustees. This effort works across more than 50 health systems and governments to coordinate a safe reopening of global travel in the age of COVID-19.

Responsible leaders invest in their local communities

In March 2020, when international business travel stalled, responsible leaders, along with a record number of volunteers, used their freed-up travel time to turn their attention to local priorities. Conscious of health and safety restrictions, many expanded their networks locally and regionally through smaller, in-person or virtual meetings. They also drew from their global network to learn from and apply good practices from cities around the word.

For example, YGLs and Global Shapers in the Bay Area, US, began meeting regularly last summer to work together to address the issue of people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, convening local policymakers and non-profit executives to address the immediate needs of homeless communities.

Responsible leaders must address systemic issues

COVID-19 has also accelerated pressing social fissures. A backlash against science, the deterioration of mental health and disillusionment of youth are three prime challenges that have emerged over the past months. Many leaders are struggling to respond to growing factionalism resulting from complex historical legacies.

Societal risks
Societal risks
Image: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2021

Responsible leaders are calling out inequity that is hindering a sincere path towards post-COVID-19 recovery. For example, YGLs around the world are advocating for vaccine equity to advance an inclusive, just and sustainable recovery. Under Rajiv Shah's (YGL 2011) leadership, the Rockefeller Foundation has committed nearly $23 million to COVID-19 recovery in Africa, and Shamina Singh (YGL 2010) has written about a personal account of her commitment to equitable vaccine access through the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. Neema Kaseje (YGL 2017), Yoshinobu Nagamine (YGL 2010) and David Walcott (YGL 2021) established a Vaccine Equity Coalition, garnering support from over 120 YGLs and Global Shapers to encourage global leaders to act for greater vaccine equity.

We hope to ignite a broader leadership movement to realize an equitable and sustainable future for generations to come.

—Mariah Levin, Head of the Forum of Young Global Leaders, World Economic Forum

Across our programming, we have also seen increased demand for dialogue on identity-based politics, discrimination and historical injustice. For example, an inaugural course, "Leading for Racial Equity," chaired by Ian Solomon (YGL 2012), the Dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, involved YGLs interrogating racial dynamics in society. Experts in non-violent communication and systemic bias created a space for leaders to test their ideas and tactics.

The ripple effects of the knowledge and practices they gained are significant: these individuals have direct influence over 70,000 employees and broader interaction with more than 17 million constituents through their organizations. In deepening their understanding of racial equity within their spheres of influence, these leaders are more prepared to chart a meaningful path to systemic change.

In the next phases of the global pandemic, our world needs responsible leaders to guide our communities and organizations. In studying their example, we hope to ignite a broader leadership movement to realize an equitable and sustainable future for generations to come.