Global Leadership in the 21st Century: Revisiting the Values of Leadership
By Max Bouchet
The Covid-19 crisis posed an unparalleled test to leaders. Around the world, some leaders rose to the challenge, demonstrating a combination of compassion and strength, as well as the humility to follow the guidance of scientists and experts. Others failed resoundingly and revealed (sometimes, yet again) their inability to lead, with tragic consequences for the human toll on their country and social cohesion.
The crisis also revealed the weaknesses of established global leadership structures. The United Nations Security Council struggled to adopt a resolution on the pandemic and its global security implications, G7 and G20 negotiations stalled for weeks, and WHO had to scale back its operations due to the withdrawal of US funding. Some of these failures stem from a return to unilateralism and great power competition, but also – arguably – from a lack of leadership.
This is the context in which the Global Diplomacy Lab organised a session on Global Leadership in the 21st century during its virtual prE-Summit in May 2020. The concept of leadership is the subject of an endless number of books, articles, self-help manuals and compilation of quotes promising readers ad nauseam ways to “find a leadership style”.
In the context of the prE-Summit, the two panelists, Florian Bankoley, a Robert Bosch Business Executive, and Cristina Gallegos, founder and CEO of Skylarx, demonstrated that leadership is a matter of constant preparation and an exercise in day-to-day decisions. Moderating the session was Amarachi A. Igboegwu.
Traditional definitions of leadership emphasise courage, leading from the front and total self-confidence. As a Frenchman, my vision of leadership tended to resonate with the legacy of General de Gaulle, who, when France was defeated in 1940 and politicians had lost all hope, flew to London against all orders and famously spoke on British radio on 18 and 22 June to rally the Free French. But speakers in the session at the prE-Summit provided a fresh perspective and nuances on these principles. The Covid-19 crisis and the global challenges we faced required a re-evaluation of the type of leadership we need, from countries and businesses to local community organisations.
The New York Times reported that Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Angela Merkel of Germany, Sanna Marin of Finland and Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan have all led successful efforts to contain the virus. In her opening GDL Talk, Netta Ahituv explored the traits demonstrated by these female heads of state, namely a mix of compassion and strength. A Haaretz columnist, Netta is a member of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network and knows what female leadership means: she founded a women’s soccer league in Israel with the aim of using sports as a means of empowerment.
Leadership qualities traverse gender lines and the successes by the leaders mentioned above involved factors beyond gender, including culture, societal resilience and development. Male leaders such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also demonstrated empathy by calling on Americans to “practise humanity together”. The most recent tensions over racial inequalities and police brutality in the US highlight how the absence of compassionate leadership weakens the social fabric. From cities to businesses, leaders must help to reunite the country. Absent at the national level, 21st century leadership increasingly seems to be emerging at the local level, e.g. with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan urging citizens to “treat each other with the kindness and compassion that we all deserve during this unprecedented and trying moment in our history”.
During the Covid-19 crisis, leaders had to take decisions in a fog of uncertainty. When the pandemic hit Milan or Seattle, mayors made decisive choices based on limited information. Anticipating future events creates challenges for every leader, as Florian Bankoley made clear. “Planning the future” often feels futile, and Florian invited leaders to instead prepare their organisation to be able to react fast enough to meet change. The person who does not know the answer, but orchestrates the search for it, becomes the leader.“As a leader, you are a servant to your employees and your team,” Florian reminded the audience.
This requires leaders to create a constructive and encouraging environmentwhere team members feel empowered to bring in their ideas. Leaders must provide emotional safety for voices that might not otherwise be heard. Google’s research on “building the perfect team” highlights that everyone needs to feel validated to speak up without judgment.The plurality of voices also matters across age, gender and communities, as a plurality of backgrounds and perspectives around a table limits blind spots and groupthink, while increasing creativity.
Finally, teams need to know the direction they are headed in order to work productively. Team members need to be drawn in by a vision they believe in and to know where their individual contribution fits in. Cristina Gallegos described how leaders can walk backwards: they shape what success looks like and then create the plan that will lead the team there. They must also communicate their vision transparently and share ownership with others to encourage feedback.
This vision must stay aligned with a changing environment. Leaders need to constantly think how upcoming trends and technological change affects their team’s preparedness. To shape their vision, Florian invited leaders to adopt the “Zoom In and Zoom Out” approach. Leaders first “zoom out” to consider challenges and opportunities that can emerge in the long run. They then “zoom in” to identify the actions that must be taken in the short- and medium-terms to mitigate future threats or to benefit from opportunities.
To increase their preparedness for future events, some city leaders have created Chief Resilience Officers positions within municipal governments to conduct exercises that emphasise preparedness. More than ever, leadership seem to have moved from the national to the local level. Mayors, governors, and community organisers who stepped up during the Covid-19 crisis may well exemplify the type of 21st century leadership we need.