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How leaders at Davos 2022 can drive meaningful change

Leaders at Davos 2022 will grapple with the impacts of a series of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of the Ukraine.

Leaders at Davos 2022 will grapple with the impacts of a series of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of the Ukraine. Image: World Economic Forum / Mattias Nutt

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
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  • Subscribe to Meet The Leader on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
  • Meet The Leader is a fortnightly podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • Ahead of the Davos 2022 Annual Meeting, leaders discuss this pivotal moment to make progress against a host of global challenges on the Meet the Leader podcast.

Since 2020's Annual Meeting, the world has been wracked by a series of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. These crises have worsened economic uncertainty, widened health gaps and increased poverty.

It's a pivotal moment to make progress, one acknowledged by this year's Annual Meeting theme: 'History at a turning point'. The latest Meet The Leader podcast caught up with a range of top names ahead of this year's event to better understand what must be in place to ensure that Davis discussions can lead to positive change.

Listening and collaborating

Meet The Leader spoke to David Rubenstein. The Carlyle Group co-founder. Rubenstein is also a history buff, and he explored how leaders can approach this time of geopolitical and geo-economical uncertainty.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: What are the key factors for leaders to remember as they gather for the first time in this way for more than two years?

David Rubenstein: I think the best thing about Davos is the opportunity to listen, not to talk. In other words, it's great to talk. Everyone loves to hear themselves talk. Everybody likes to have their ideas listened to by others. But I think you get more out of Davos if you listen.

I once interviewed Oprah Winfrey, a famous interviewer, and she said, she's not really that great an interviewer. She's a great listener. And she says when she listens, she learns a lot more than when she talks. And I think that's going to be true at Davos.

A lot has happened the last two or three years. And I think a lot of people that have some historical perspective and have different perspectives from living in all different parts of the world, we'll be able to educate people about things that have happened. I know I'm looking forward to learning from people in Europe about what's going on in the war there in ways that I can't really do over Zoom.

"We can use a little bit more courage in some of our leadership around the world."

David Rubenstein, Co-founder, The Carlyle Group

But the issues that I think are most important are: Number one - trying to resolve Russia and Ukraine; Number two - trying to get the global economy in reasonable shape, because it does teeter on possibly a recession if we don't solve this problem. Number three is the global problem of climate change, which we can't forget. Number four is the US/China and the European/China relationship, making certain that it's going to be something that's acceptable to everybody. And last I'd say is the income inequality that has increased as a result of COVID. COVID is still with us. And a large percentage of people in the world have not been vaccinated yet.

I think we should also recognize that COVID has changed the way we live and work and how that can make humanity better is something we should talk about. What have we learned from COVID and what can we do better next time a COVID type thing happens.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: And given that this is one of the most complex geopolitical and geo-economical situations in decades: what do you think is needed to truly understand that?

David Rubenstein: I think having a sense of history is helpful. And I think a lot of people who will be at Davos probably have lived through some complicated historical events.

The most important thing I think I would want to convey to people - and I think people should understand - is that when you watch television, you watch movies, you get used to things happening very quickly. It's over in a half-hour, it's over an hour. You tend to think that the world operates that way. But we have wars that have gone on for years and years and years. And we now have one that could go on for years and years. Putting that into perspective is very important for people.

So those people that have some experience and some history with these long wars - the Vietnam war went on for 10 years, Afghanistan for 20 years. So the idea that the Ukraine war will be over in one or two or three or weeks or so is, I think, misleading. This is going to be a long haul, most likely.

"That's what Davos is about - letting people know your views, coming together and working together in a peaceful way to get a problem solved in the world."

David Rubenstein, Co-founder, The Carlyle Group

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: When we had talked for a podcast last year, you'd said that you'd been disappointed by a lack of courage from leaders in recent years. How do you think courage will play out in the year ahead?

David Rubenstein: Somebody that no one had thought was going to be a Churchill-like figure emerged as a Churchill-like, courageous figure. And that's President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. And I think he's showing what it takes to be a great leader.

A lot of leaders, once they get to be in leadership positions, want to take the path of least resistance and are not willing to really take bold stands. And I think Zelensky can really be a role model for people. Courage is not easy. It's not easy to do things that might upset people that are close to you. But I do think we can use a little bit more courage in some of our leadership around the world.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: For you personally, what is the top factor that you think is going to be shaping your sector in the year ahead?

David Rubenstein: I think the global economy will probably shape it the most because right now we've had our first quarter in the United States that was in the negative territory. Another negative quarter would be a recession. I do think that the higher energy prices, the disruptions in supply chains, the uncertainty about the food supply, particularly with the wheat exports from Russia -- It's leading to an economic situation that is very difficult.

And not only that - we've been progressing towards increasing interest rates. So at the time that the economy around the world seems to be slowing down in Europe, United States and China, we are in a path toward increasing interest rates, which is probably a good path to be on, but it may have the effect of producing a global slowdown, maybe even a recession.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there anything that keeps you up at night?

David Rubenstein: Well, I do worry about the Russia/Ukraine situation. We've never had a situation before where a nuclear power was engaged in a war quite this way and threatening to use nuclear weapons. Now, the threat was veiled, but there's no doubt that the message was intended that nuclear weapons could be used. And the fact that people are talking about tactical nuclear weapons as if they're just some type of tactical weapon is a little bit scary.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: And is there anything that gives you hope?

David Rubenstein: The fact that people are coming together and coming to Davos and are still willing to talk - they're not afraid of overcoming some difficulties. That a good thing. If nobody was willing to show up and nobody's willing to talk about these problems, that would be a bigger challenge. I think the World Economic Forum has done a pretty good job of working through all the logistical and other challenges to bring people together. It's been a couple of years since we've been together. I think we're long overdue to really have a real in-person conversation among leaders from around the world.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: Davos brings together heads of state and business leaders and activists all working on the same issues. Sometimes you can find yourself all next to them in that very long line for security, getting into the Congress Centre. Is there a chance meeting that stands out for you?

David Rubenstein: In Davos, you never know who you're going to run into, or you're sitting next to, and you can be at a dinner and you're sitting next to a president of a country or a former president of country or a former military leader or former great financier. One of the great pleasures of Davos is you never know exactly who we're gonna see. It is amazing how many people show up in a small city in Switzerland for a couple of days a year.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: And is there a message that you would like leaders from this year's Davos be taking away from the event?

David Rubenstein: Well, the message I hope everybody will take away is that we need to resolve the Russia/Ukraine situation as peacefully and as quickly as possible. Because until that is resolved, I don't really think we can get the global economy in the position it should be.

And I hope we don't lose sight of two other global issues. One is climate change and the other is the growing income inequality that exists in many countries between those who are wealthy and those who really are left behind.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: And what else should people keep in mind as they come together at this incredible moment?

David Rubenstein: I think when people come together, they should try to think about what they can do to help make the world situation better. To bring people together and to convey a message that we can cooperate and work together.

And that's what Davos is about, which is, letting people know your views, coming together and working together in a peaceful way to get a problem solved in the world. And the World Economic Forum deserves its credit for doing this for more than 50 years.

Moving 'outside the bubble'

Meet The Leader also had the chance to talk to Leif Johansson, the chairman of AstraZeneca. We asked him how these gatherings have challenged him and helped him grow as a leader. Here's what he said:

Leif Johansson: What you need to do as a leader -- and I became a CEO at a very young age -- you need to have other reference points than the one that you get in your normal daily work. And if you don't have other reference points over time, you've been living in your own little bubble.

"Let's come out of our own little self-created bubbles and make sure that we have a wider understanding of what goes on around us and then try to impact that in a positive way."

Leif Johansson, chairman, AstraZeneca

That's a comfortable place to be, but it's not a productive or good place to be. It’s much, much better to come to WEF every now and then feel a little out of your normal comfort zone or listen to views that you may not necessarily agree with but then are still good.

And I think WEF’s ability to create seminars on completely different subjects -- it's a very good message to all of us that we might need to go and want to listen to completely different subjects than the one we are normally exposed to. All of that I love.

I think let's come out of our own little self-created bubbles and make sure that we have a wider understanding of what goes on around us and then try to impact the world in a positive way.

Committing to change

Lastly, I was able to catch up with Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Development Programme. He shared his hopes for the Annual Meeting overall and what he'd like to see move forward.

Achim Steiner: Particularly at this moment in time, not only because of the conflicts in the world, but also because of the urgency of having responses that are well aligned, look at, for instance, the issue of finance, we actually have more money than ever in the history of the world - well over over $400 trillion.

A lot of this money is actually stuck. It is not finding places to land, to invest itself. And yet the world is desperate at the moment to invest in a recovery from COVID, to invest in a just energy transition, towards a decarbonized future, dealing with the fallout, for instance, of inequality that is so pervasive, poverty reduction, accelerated industrialization, the smart cities of the future.

There is an extraordinary opportunity to invest. And yet our system, our financial system, our international financial architecture, but also the way that leaders in the financial sector need to look at this future, is simply not evolving fast enough. The World Bank, IMF spring meetings were a stark reminder that we are struggling to stand up to these to these challenges.

I hope particularly since Davos is often very much a place where individuals can sit down with one another, that we will find opportunities to forge not only new alliances and partnership but actually to encourage one another to step up. As I said earlier on, this is also true for CEOs, for heads of government, for leaders of public institutions.

"We are in a moment where we need to accelerate transformation and transition."

Achim Steiner, Administrator, UNDP

These are not normal times. And I think where Davos and the WEF will always be judged, but particularly a moment like this, is can it actually foster that kind of common endeavour, that is also is cognisant of the fact that this is not a time where you can only discuss about how your shareholders will do over the next 12 months.

This is where leaders of corporations, of industry, of energy companies, need to show leadership because we are in a moment where we need to accelerate transformation and transition, and it simply won't happen if we just try to go back to where we were before the pandemic.

Everybody says this, everybody knows it's true, but let's be frank: the temptation to just scramble back to where it was before is certainly it's still there.

And I think we need leadership. Leadership is one of the great variables and in any society in any community. Let's see if Davos this year can foster the kind of leadership that inspires others to join. That I think has to be one of the litmus tests for whether a meeting at this moment in time produces real world impacts.

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