6 lessons on how to lead in times of uncertainty

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Young Global Leaders at Harvard Kennedy School.

Young Global Leaders at Harvard Kennedy School. Image: Harvard Kennedy School.

Danny Richmond
Community Lead, Young Global Leaders, World Economic Forum
James Forsyth
Community Lead, South Asia/ASEAN, and Member Relations, Young Global Leaders, World Economic Forum

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  • A select group of Young Global Leaders attended a course on global leadership and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
  • Participants considered the major issues facing future generations and acquired leadership skills necessary to effect significant change.
  • We asked six leaders from different sectors and regions to share their insights on how to lead more effectively in uncertain times.

In what feels like an everchanging environment, it can be difficult for leaders to find the path forward or plan beyond the immediate. For the past two weeks, 65 of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders (YGL) met at the Harvard Kennedy School for a two-week course on Global Leadership and Public Policy to discuss leadership challenges for which the textbook has not yet been written.

In this unique time of constant change due to a convergence of a global pandemic, geopolitical tensions and social unrest, we asked YGLs from different regions and sectors to reflect on how to better lead through this time of uncertainty:

Embrace your humility and a spirit of learning

Jens Spahn, Member of Parliament and Former Minister of Health, Germany

As a young leader, you may at times be tempted to think that you have seen it all. But then there are places, people, discussions that tell you: “Wait, there’s so much more to learn and to discover. You are far away from being the one you could be.” This is what the YGL-programme at Kennedy School is all about: an inspiring place like Harvard, a diverse group composed of great talents from all over the world, lectures that lead to insightful discussions. A truly exceptional experience.

Challenge the data and allow for dissent

Lucy D’Arville, Partner, Bain & Company, Australia

As a leader, one of our most important responsibilities is to make decisions and in many situations these decisions are made under pressure. However, there are many biases contributing to the risk of making a bad assessment and insufficiently updating our pre-existing beliefs.

Given this, it is critical to put in place the right decision making processes. Three important insights for me to avoid falling into the bias trap are:

1. Always surround myself with people who tell me I am wrong.

2. Interrogate the data to make decisions on as complete a data-set as possible.

3. Set-up inclusive procedures to allow all sides of an argument the space to be expressed and considered.

As easy as it would be to rely on my intuition as a leader, I leave this course more self-aware of the shortcomings of that approach.

Play the probabilities

Leland Maschmeyer, Co-Founder, Sway, USA

A common trait of leadership is decisive decision making. However, when many days feel like a chaotic soup of overwhelming information and dizzying perspective shifts stirred by an incessant overturning of hard-fought knowledge, quick and conclusive decision making is the wrong goal. Dan Levy of Harvard's Kennedy School offered an alternative: adopt probabilistic decision making. That means making choices based on the odds of desired and undesired outcomes coming to pass. Successfully doing this requires that we challenge our assumptions, gauge the influence of variables, and identify our blind spots. Probabilistic thinking doesn’t remove uncertainty. But it does remove the assumption of certainty conjured by decisiveness. It's an important update to our conception of leadership.


What is a YGL?

Bring together diverse stakeholders to solve intersectional challenges

Tolu Oni, Urban Epidemiologist, University of Cambridge, UK

Create affinity through intergroup contact. This lesson really resonates as I work with complexity at the intersection of population health, urbanisation and climate change. The nexus requires atypical collaborations with individuals and organizations across sectors and disciplines who are not accustomed to working together. But I also recognise that this is tantamount to intentionally creating tension. And so it’s important to anticipate and make space for the discomfort that may (or more likely will) follow to optimise conditions for innovative insights to emerge.

Explore your vulnerability

Ibrahim AlMojel, Chief Executive Officer, Saudi Industrial Development Fund, Saudi Arabia

Allowing yourself to be vulnerable and open allows you to go deeper in understanding the challenges you face. We tend to simplify the problems we have and the frameworks we work within, but being vulnerable can allow you to go deeper into the layers of the problem and your role in solving them. A key component of our Harvard Kennedy School programme has been sharing amongst a diverse group of peers. Their questions, insights and different perspectives can shed light on unseen forces in the uncertainties you face and help you grow in your leadership.

Zoom out to see greater forces at work

Longmei Zhang, Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and Former IMF Deputy Resident Representative for China, China

While overcoming a technical challenge demands skill, overcoming an adaptive challenge requires a change in attitude and mind. The YGLs came from a variety of backgrounds, including large corporations, startups, governments, and non-governmental organizations. While we each confront unique challenges in our respective fields, these obstacles are frequently rooted in the rapid shifting geopolitical landscape. The Harvard leadership module enables us to zoom out and view difficulties from a broader perspective, changing our focus away from day-to-day technical obstacles toward more fundamental adaptive challenges. While we can solve technical difficulties with our knowledge, adaptive change demands adjustments in our hearts and minds. In the geopolitical context, this requires improving cross-cultural communication and rebuilding trust among countries. As YGLs, we need to work collectively to advocate for global cooperation and preserve global peace and prosperity.

Embrace your humility and a spirit of learningChallenge the data and allow for dissentPlay the probabilitiesBring together diverse stakeholders to solve intersectional challengesExplore your vulnerabilityZoom out to see greater forces at work

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