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Through collective action, young leaders can build a better world

Colorful handmade Asian umbrellas on display at night market in Luang Prabang, Laos. Through collective action, our leaders have the power to forge a better world — despite the many challenges we face.

Through collective action, our leaders have the power to forge a better world — despite the many challenges we face. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

George Pyrgos
Lead, Young Global Leader Alumni Community, World Economic Forum
Celia Becherel
Coordinator, Young Global Leaders, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Global society faces a multitude of complex and overlapping challenges that threaten stability, security and prosperity.
  • Finding solutions requires multilateral dialogue and collaborative, collective action.
  • Young Global Leaders believe that thinking inclusively, enshrining empathy in dialogue and deep listening are essential to bridging societal divides so leaders can work together for collective action.

The world is fractured. Reeling from the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted just how brittle the systems that hold our globalised society together have become.

The International Monetary Fund reports that rising food and energy prices are fueling high inflation. That, in turn, increases the risk of global financial instability at a time when the UN Climate Change’s Standing Committee on Finance is preparing a report calling for a doubling of climate adaptation finance. In our interconnected world, these challenges intersect, overlap and impact each other.

Against this backdrop, geopolitical tensions continue to increase. It can sometimes feel that we are farther away from international consensus than ever.

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Solving complex issues through collective action

Complex global issues cannot be solved in isolation. Addressing them requires holistic solutions that engage stakeholders at all levels. Crafting these solutions requires leaders to engage in inclusive, multilateral dialogue that places collaboration and collective action at the heart of conversations.

These values are embedded in the work of The Forum of Young Global Leaders. Young Global Leaders (YGLs) are a diverse, global community of outstanding people addressing the world’s most pressing problems. They are challenged to work together, bridge national and societal divides and create real-world change for the benefit of all.

As the World Economic Forum convenes its 53rd Annual Meeting in January, and at this critical juncture for the world, we asked 11 YGLs how leaders can work together for collective action, to drive positive, inclusive systems change.


What is a YGL?

'A full stomach can lead to an open heart and a listening ear'

Shamina Singh, President, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth

My mum was a master of bringing together people who had disagreeing viewpoints. We called her dining room the “global village,” because every time I came home to visit, there were diverse people sitting around the table discussing and arguing in multiple languages and from different faith traditions.

No matter the guests or the topic, she would serve her scrumptious Punjabi delicacies, bringing a piece of her culture and identity to the community of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Every winning politician knew that running for office meant sitting down on her couch for a cup of chai and a chat about how they were going to serve the community — the whole community.

My mum understood that great movements have to be fed and nourished, and that is precisely what she did. It turns out a full stomach can lead to an open heart and a listening ear — two things today’s leaders should work to cultivate for themselves, as well as among those they lead.

'One’s capacity to listen is the most critical leadership ability'

Francoise Moudouthe, Chief Executive Officer, African Women's Development Fund

We often hear global leaders speak of collective action – but do they ever think of collective listening? I believe that one’s capacity to listen is the most critical leadership ability.

The world faces so many challenges today, and leaders will only be successful if they seek to respect, listen to and learn from the voices of people who are most affected — especially those who live at the intersection of those crises.

Women living in poverty; sexual minorities living in conflict-ridden areas; migrant children living under autocratic regimes. They all understand what the world really needs, and often they also have designed solutions that work. Leaders need to listen to those voices, not in an extractive or tokenistic way, but with the intention to learn from them, and co-create with them.

Just imagine what the world would look like if leaders were as committed to listening as they are to speaking.

'The key is empathy'

Taejun Shin, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Gojo & Company Inc

Empathy, or contextual understanding of others, is key to collective actions. It is increasingly challenging to take collective actions, whether political, environmental or commercial.

There are two reasons for this. One is that major actors on global agendas have become more diverse than decades ago – people have different incentives and motivations. The second is that after the advent of social media, people have become more blind and deaf toward different opinions. To overcome this, we should listen to others with opposing views and try to understand where they are coming from. The key is empathy.

Whenever I talk with my opponents, I start with a reminder that they also are humans who smile, enjoy, cry and suffer. There are due reasons, at least from their perspective, to hold some belief or judgment. Once I understand their context, I can work with them. The Forum’s Annual Meeting is the perfect place to start this.

'When we trust more, we increase the likelihood of collectively working toward a shared future'

Samar Ali, Chief Executive Officer, Millions of Conservations

Working together for collective action begins with mastering the art of listening. Deeply listening to one another is what inspires us to be open to new possibilities and relationships that at first may seem inaccessible.

As we listen for opportunities to create a shared future, we can also reflect on where we have been and why we are standing where we are at this very moment. It is when we find the courage to have these honest conversations, in the name of realising a better tomorrow for all of us, that the magic begins.

Through authentic listening we also build trust. And when we trust more, we increase the likelihood of collectively working toward a shared future — one guided by ethical principles and rooted in belonging. With consensus built around this new agreed-upon foundation, momentum naturally builds toward speaking directly to the minds, hearts and souls of communities worldwide.

'We need reinvigorated and networked forms of multilateralism'

Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, President, Igarape Institute

The world faces a triple planetary crisis, which includes climate disruption, loss of biodiversity and increased pollution. Added to the threats of public health and geopolitical instability, these crises have serious negative impacts — from rising inequalities and energy prices to destabilising supply chains and food security.

We need reinvigorated and networked forms of multilateralism to address these interconnected and systemic risks. Multistakeholder collaboration by publicly minded leaders can deliver outcomes that expand access to global public goods — a precondition for a safer and more just world.

For that to happen, diverse intergenerational constituencies should be assembled to define priorities and design mission-oriented approaches for building science-proof solutions. Finally, coalitions need to be organized to shape the debate and influence public and corporate policies to foster a better pact for people and the planet.


'Leadership is about collaboration'

Wawira Njiru, Founder and Executive Director, Food for Education

Leadership, apart from being about strategy, vision and execution, is about collaboration. The current challenges that the world faces cannot be solved by one person and alone and so collective action is imperative.

Our similarities are greater than our differences and, as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are connected now more than ever. Leaders can work together for collective action by putting aside differences that create barriers and coming together to address the challenges the world and humanity are facing.

From climate change, hunger and the current economic crisis, among others, leaders across different fields can lay out the strategy for all human beings to achieve lives of prosperity and dignity, achieving their highest potential.

'Leaders must consider the digital divide'

Bolor-Erdene Battsengel, Vice-Minister, Ministry of Digital Development of Mongolia

One of the biggest issues that many leaders do not talk about and must consider is the digital divide. Globally, 37% of the world population — 2.6 billion people — do not have internet connectivity.

While technology can solve many issues including education inequality, income inequality or even gender inequality, if we do not solve digital inclusion, the global inequality gap will be impossible to fill.

As young leaders, we have to bring up this issue and also contribute to all discussions as representations of younger generations.

'Solid regional cooperation in many levels and fields is a win-win situation'

Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, Senior Special Envoy, The Jewish Agency

The most important thing I understand as a Young Global Leader is that, in many cases, in the international arena, local is global.

Many domestic challenges that countries are facing and will face during the 21st century share common characteristics and require regional and global cooperation to solve them. This holds true for climate change, social gaps, ESG, human dignity and equality.

As an Israeli Druze YGL, I see the rapid, dramatic achievements we are accomplishing in the Middle East through the Abraham Accords. I understand, more than ever, that solid regional cooperation in many levels and fields is a win-win situation. It is essential and significantly impacts bringing opportunities, strengthening local communities and empowering economies.

'Our response to COVID-19 has shown what is possible'

Matthew Guilford, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Common Health

COVID-19 has turned back the clock on health coverage. Half a billion people were pushed into extreme poverty last year due to medical expenses, a rate much higher than pre-pandemic levels.

At the same time, our response to COVID-19 has shown what is possible. The world has administered 13 billion coronavirus vaccine doses in two years. Surely, we can reach the 25 million infants lacking basic immunisations like measles, mumps and rubella. The deadline for the UN's Sustainable Development Goals is 2030. We created a COVID-19 vaccine in under 12 months. Imagine what we can do in the next seven years.

'To address the gender-venture investment gap, deep, structural change must happen'

Sarah Chen-Spellings, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Beyond the Billion

Innovation and disruptive technology will carry us through the transition to a more digital, decentralised and green economy, but the question is: how do we do that if we do not deploy the full talents of our population?

If less than 3% of venture capital is being channelled to women innovators, how can we truly imagine and create an inclusive future? As I've learned, to meaningfully address the gender venture investment gap, deep, structural change needs to happen — from designing to remove bias in the investment process to challenging previous patterns of success. This work is urgent and core to what we need to do to emerge from a conflict-engulfed, post-pandemic reality; and cannot be left by the wayside amidst the global market headwinds.

'Energy stability is of paramount importance'

Zuriel Naiker, Managing Director, Marsh & McLennan Companies

We are in a climate crisis, and now more than ever, energy stability is of paramount importance to leaders and businesses globally.

At a time when the constantly evolving risk landscape compounds an already complex and volatile environment, we are given a unique opportunity to fast-track our transition to renewable energy. In doing this, we pave the way to stronger growth and improved economic stability, de-risking our growth plans and setting a better foundation for the next generation.

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