Davos 2017: Leadership inside the tumble dryer

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is not just a technology show that needs to be “mastered” from the sidelines. Virtually every aspect of our lives is getting tossed inside this tumble dryer, the role of leadership itself being one of them.

Just think through the number of leaders – in both political and corporate office – who have unexpectedly left their seats in just the past two years. The volatility of attendees at Davos in recent years is illustrative of the instability of leadership positions in every domain.

As a result, while it is relatively easy to outline what needs to be done, it is significantly harder to ensure that what needs to be done, actually gets done.

The theme of Davos 2017 – “responsive and responsible leadership” – is acknowledgement that unresponsive leadership invites irresponsible leadership in a negative feedback loop.

Apparent consensus around globalization and liberal progressivism is now broken. Appealing to the “aggregate net benefits” of globalization and ignoring the local concerns of people who have been left behind is unresponsive leadership. Shutting down debate by automatically accusing somebody of racism or sexism or any other ‘ism is also unresponsive leadership. Exploiting that vacuum with the politics of hate, whether Right-wing or Left-wing hate, is irresponsible leadership. Ignoring the creeping threat of irresponsible leadership is in turn, unresponsive leadership… So the cycle goes on.

Virtually all of our public discourse is framed as false binaries. Everything is couched in the style of a Westminster or Oxford Union debate. It is as if I cannot be a Euro-sceptic and a Remain voter; I cannot be a proponent of multi-cultural diversity and still have concerns about the pace of migration; I cannot believe in liberalised labour markets and also a greater role of government in welfare. It is a short path from false binaries to polarisation, hate and extremism.

So the market-place of leadership requires a product with the following attributes:

– We need leaders who can inspire with more ANDs and less ORs.

– We need leaders who engage in constructive conflict and can demonstrate movement through collaboration.

– We need leaders who proactively seek out diversity of perspectives, constantly asking “What am I missing? What are our blind spots?”

– We need leaders who can navigate change when the backdrop is continually uncertain and the destination is unknown.

Can supply match up to demand? And if not, what’s plan B?

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