3 leadership practices for social cohesion in a divided world

Strong leadership can unite a divided world

In a world emerging from years of social isolation, divided by mass inequality and facing a climate crisis, effective leadership is more important than ever. Image: Unsplash/James Lee

Mariah Levin
Executive Director, beVisioneers: The Mercedes Benz Fellowship
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This article first appeared on Forbes.

  • Now more than ever, as we face a climate crisis and mass inequality, the world needs thoughtful leaders that can bridge divides.
  • Inclusive, humble and resilient leaders can help their organizations or societies emerge from a prolonged period of social isolation.
  • The Forum of Young Global Leaders convenes young leaders from all over the world to foster the next generation of leaders.
  • Our new cohort of leaders launches today.

Leaders’ values and behaviours serve as a template for a society’s interactions. As the world recovers from a period of prolonged social isolation, key leadership behaviours are increasingly important in promoting mutual understanding and cooperation.

The communication of a leader sets the overall tone of civility for an organization, and their priorities direct resources and attention. Their models help us to see our own roles in repairing societal fractures.

The 2022 World Economic Forum Global Risk Report notes that our societies are increasingly facing divergent realities. Record inequality has divided us: The pandemic has increased the projected number of people in extreme poverty by 51 million, while the wealth of billionaires has seen unprecedented gains.

Daily life before the pandemic exposed us to new experiences, people and ideas, but two years of quarantines and social restrictions have closed the door on many of these opportunities to learn from one another.

When we don’t have a chance to exchange perspectives and share in life's trials, we are prone to misinterpretations and negative assumptions. With vicious wars underway in multiple regions and scientific evidence increasingly indicating inescapable environmental disaster, we must overcome divisions to foster collaborative problem-solving.

As a foundation established to build bridges across regions, sectors and identities, the Forum of Young Global Leaders has been working with a group of highly influential leaders to re-formulate bridge-building in today’s context.

The Young Global Leaders' Impact Model

We are curating authentic exchanges among leaders, with the aim that these conversations trigger a ripple effect resulting in more resources and attention for social cohesion. Certain practices are emerging from our work, and we share our insights on pursuing cohesion to enable broader cooperation and solidarity.

From those exchanges, three key practices have emerged that will equip an individual to lead in a divided world.

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1) Cultivating equity, inclusion and belonging — not just diversity

The Forum for Young Global Leaders promotes leadership diversity by celebrating remarkable individuals from around the world and works to integrate their perspectives into decision-making at the highest levels.

Every year, we undertake a rigorous process to identify 120 leaders under 40 who have already demonstrated admirable records of success in their fields. We seek to accelerate their influence and good work by engaging them in activities and discussions at the World Economic Forum.

Over 60% of the leaders we celebrate are non-Western, and our aim is to increase this figure to broader geographic representation in global policy making.

However, the work involved in fostering inclusion and belonging is much more challenging than merely hitting diversity metrics. The presence of more diverse representatives is just a starting point at these decision-making tables. Our organization, like many working in this area, is transitioning our focus toward designing intentional cultural shifts to help shape informal interactions beyond inclusive policies into inclusive behaviours.

The leaders we work with speak of the challenge of being heard because of micro-aggressions, lack of appreciation for their lived experience, and unspoken assumptions about the topics that are genuinely open for discussion. In response, we are examining how we set the culture within our community of leaders, shifting the language we use, flexibly responding to the spontaneous need for discussions about identity and lived experience, and hosting specific exchanges about what inclusion and belonging look like in practice.


2) Gaining resilience and inspiration through peers

The seismic environmental and societal challenges we face require coordinated action and responses. But building a cohesive foundation for action is not a task completed quickly or simply. It requires persistence and courage to confront inevitable missteps and to keep going.

For this reason, we have seen great value in “leadership circles” — peer groups of 5-6 leaders who regularly come together to advise one another on their approaches to barriers, process their learning and sustain collective hope.

In 2021, we kicked off leadership circles for individuals from 45 countries and our leadership circles from previous years continue to provide invaluable support to leaders in times of uncertainty and questioning. These peer support groups are one of the most sought out elements of our programming, and a good indication of the value of this practice.


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3) Embracing curiosity, humility and discomfort

Recently, our foundation brought together 35 leaders from 15 countries and multiple sectors to discuss policies and practices to support racial equity.

As we dove into issues of identity, inherited privilege and power structures, tense moments of disagreement and misunderstanding arose. The facilitator recalled the principles the group had agreed to in joining the module: To explore the “hard questions” of identity and to learn from one another.

Using methods of non-violent communication, which emphasizes embracing curiosity and withholding judgement, he modelled humility that built broader understanding and compassion into the group discussion. His genuine curiosity set norms for the attitudes and behaviours that enabled the group to handle conflicting views and learn from them.

This showed that the greatest leadership insights frequently come from moments of discomfort. When leaders assume compassionate curiosity and humbly recognize the limitations of their own experiences, they set a tone for genuine dialogue and better outcomes.

Building social cohesion takes conscious and intentional steps, patience and continuous learning. Our efforts at mutual understanding are fragile, yet urgent. Our leaders must step up to the challenge of reinforcing principles of cooperation, and set the right example for each of us to follow.

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