Leading into tomorrow: skills to navigate through change

The skills that leaders need in a world of disruption are changing.

The skills that leaders need in a world of disruption are changing. Image: Getty Images

Francois Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head of Foundations, World Economic Forum
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  • As we navigate an era of rapid transformations, leading through change is essential.
  • Adaptable leaders who embrace learning and collaboration, build diverse teams and identify transformative opportunities in disruption will be the most effective.
  • The Forum for Young Global Leaders plays host to many young leaders who are values-driven, empathetic and brave in their pursuit of change.

The world is facing a series of disruptions that will fundamentally alter our lives: transitioning to net-zero, nature-positive world, a fracturing global political order, the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to name a few. How we navigate these changes will depend in large part on who leads us — in our organizations, communities and society at large. But the definition of good leadership itself is, in many ways, changing as societies and organizations grapple with complex challenges that give rise to increased scrutiny on ethical, inclusive and sustainable practices.

However, research by Deloitte shows that just 23% of employees believe their organization’s leaders currently have the capabilities necessary to manage in a disrupted, boundaryless world. This perceived lack of readiness may stem from a misunderstanding of the implications of and opportunities in the new world we are entering. Therefore, it is crucial for leaders to cultivate three key competencies: adaptability, cross-cultural understanding and forward-thinking.

Since its inception in 2004, the Forum of Young Global Leaders has offered a platform for leaders to experiment with fresh ideas and strategize solutions. Its unique three-year leadership development programme fosters a culture of diversity and collaboration, equipping future leaders with the necessary skills to excel in an increasingly complex world.

Below are three ways leaders can develop these skills:

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Harness adaptability

The pace of change is only accelerating, and disruptions are becoming more common. Leaders need to be adaptable and able to pivot their strategies in response to changing circumstances. For example, Victor Ochen, a Young Global Leader (YGL) and Nobel Prize nominee, exemplifies adaptability in his approach to driving change. His work, ranging from Uganda to Ukraine, is steeped in a commitment to healing the traumas of war. His organization, the African Youth Initiative Network, has provided crucial psychological support to over 21,000 individuals affected by violence. Demonstrating a remarkable ability to adapt his experience and knowledge to new contexts, Ochen has expanded his reach beyond Africa. He spearheaded a pan-African initiative to mobilize psychologists and other conflict responders to aid in Ukraine.

“We are brothers, as Africans. We are stepping forward to help our brothers and sisters who are caught up in conflict in Europe, especially in Ukraine,” says Ochen.

Through his work, Ochen highlights that being able to apply learnings to changing contexts is not just a valuable skill for leaders in today's era of disruption, but an essential one.

Embrace lifelong learning

Lifelong learning breeds innovation. Leaders who make it a priority to consistently seek knowledge are more likely to generate novel ideas and solutions.

YGL Mariana Vasconcelos leveraged her love for learning to help farmers connect technology with agriculture. As the CEO and co-founder of Brazil-based AgroSmart — the largest agricultural data network in Latin America, Vasconcelos developed a platform that collects and processes data to generate insights that support 100,000 farmers in making data-driven decisions and overcoming the uncertainty of climate and climate change. Its network of farmers aggregates information that continuously improves the quality of the insights provided and supports companies in the whole-food system to transition to a more productive, sustainable and climate-resilient supply chain.

“Growing up in an agricultural family and handling food from farm to table, I developed a passion for food systems. It translated into the creation of AgroSmart. My daily duties include interacting with the market, investors, corporate clients, entrepreneurs, and stakeholders, by which I constantly update my knowledge and build upon our vision and strategy,” says Vasoncelos.

By fostering a culture of continuous learning and curiosity, Vasconcelos harnessed technology and data to enhance farming practices. This underscores how leaders committed to continuous learning can stay ahead of the curve, driving innovation that can disrupt entire industries.

Build a culture of collaboration

In times of rapid change and disruption, leaders must foster a culture of collaboration, encouraging diverse perspectives and shared learning to generate innovative solutions.

For example, YGLs Neema Kaseje, Humanitarian Surgeon and Health Leader at Médecins Sans Frontières, Guillaume Lefèvre, Head of Brokers Channel & Customers Commercial Insurance, Zurich Insurance Group and H.R.H. Jaime de Bourbon de Parme, Climate Envoy for the Netherlands Government, recently unveiled a plan to revolutionize health services in rural and refugee communities. Using digital technology, including AI and machine learning, they aim to eliminate inefficiencies and optimize surgical procedures, while also promoting environmental sustainability and health equity. With the goal of improving health access and reducing costs, this coalition is working to create a brighter future for those in need of life-saving care.

Similarly, one group of YGLs have launched the 1t.org India Coalition, to support the country's commitment to restore 26 million hectares of deforested land and sequester 2.5-3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030. Led by YGL Bhairavi Jani, Executive Director of SCA Group of Companies, the coalition is working closely with the World Economic Forum to help mitigate the effects of climate change, water scarcity and loss of topsoil in India. This restoration is critical for the livelihoods of India's 700 million rural inhabitants who depend on forests and agriculture.

Fostering a culture of collaboration and shared learning in times of rapid change and disruption is more than a leadership approach — it's a tool for generating solutions with far-reaching impact.

Leaders like Ochen, Vasconcelos and the many other YGLs in our community embody what is essential for leaders in a changing world. They are empathetic and have experience: on the ground, working side-by-side and in their communities. They understand the challenges the world faces, but they are not intimidated by them. They see opportunity in them.

Whether it is using AI to help farmers and reimagine the food system, or using digital technologies to revolutionize health services in rural and refugee communities, these leaders share the ability to identify opportunities in disruption and affect positive change. That is what we need from our leaders today and moving forward.

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