The World Economic Forum is never short of contradictions, and Day Two had plenty of them.

In one session, Greta Thunberg called for a remaking of the global economy, through grassroots movements that rely on local ecosystems. In another, Donald Trump took credit for “the great American comeback,” describing “a blue-collar boom” of new jobs, factories and wealth that could lead to a new decade of manufacturing and global trade. Neither may indicate where leadership in the 2020s, and a decade of climate, tech and economic disruptions, is headed.

The Forum conversations about leadership suggest neither confrontation nor conflation are on the rise. Collaboration is – across offices, communities and society. It’s a new kind of “stakeholder leadership.”

An MIT Sloan Management School study, released at Davos today, found skepticism within companies about the abilities of leaders to help organizations, and communities, through disruptive change. Sloan surveyed business thinkers from more than 120 countries, and found just 12% strongly agreed their leaders have the right mindset to lead them forward. And only 40% believe their companies are building robust talent pipelines. The worst score? It was on digital skills, with fewer than 10% feeling their leaders have them. That’s worrisome because one of the messages at Davos is that new business models are emerging in which traditional companies will become their own platforms, through what IBM calls “business re-engineering on steroids.” One example: Yara International, the Norwegian fertilizer company that sees itself as an information platform for sustainable farming.

To get there, the MIT Sloan study says organizations must come to grips with “deficient skills sets and outdated mindsets.” (It profiles RBC and CEO Dave McKay for “a culture of openness, partnership-building and authenticity.”) In addition to authenticity, the authors identify an emerging type of leader who is purpose-driven and passionate, and exudes humility, inclusiveness, and empathy.

Those aren’t exactly qualities that would score well in a Davos word association game. But many of the management thinkers here are seeing it spread rapidly. In another Davos session, on the future of the corporation, Oxford economist Paul Collier made the case against “economic man” – the post-war model of corporate employees who were told what to do by their leaders and then closely monitored. “Turns out these ideas are false,” Collier said. “Those ideas are right for cats; humans are not like that. We are a uniquely pro-social species.” Which is why he sees a new generation of executives who show “leadership though respect.”

Part of Davos this year has been handed over to teenage leaders, including climate activist Greta Thunberg. She joined on stage a Zambian children rights’ campaigner, Natasha Mwansa; Salvador Gomez-Colon, a Puerto Rican advocate; and Autumn Peltier, the chief water commissioner of Anishinabek Nation in Ontario. “Our generation is standing up for the world we want to see,” Gomez-Colon told the Forum. “We’re not the future, we are the present.” The youth on stage said they see a different leadership model emerging, one that is more positive and constructive. “I don’t want your awards. If you’re going to award me, award me with helping to make change,” Peltier stressed. As for the way new media has ravaged many aspects of leadership, she added, “If you’re going to say something negative about us online, don’t. We’re trying to do something positive.”

The day ended with five of the world’s top CEOs – Brian Moynihan (Bank of America), Ginni Rometty (IBM), Feike Sybesma (Royal DSM), Jim Snabe (chair, Siemens) and Marc Benioff (Salesforce) – who discussed leadership for a new kind of economic model. “Capitalism as we have known it is dead,” Benioff told the Forum. The group agreed the CEO of the 2020s is one who can both bring together and serve so-called stakeholders, including communities. (In Salesforce’s hometown of San Francisco, “the homeless are our stakeholders,” Benioff said, referring to a campaign he led to raise taxes to reduce homelessness.) At IBM, Rometty used the example of skills training to illustrate how corporations can play a role once assumed to be solely the property of government. Knowing not every American kid can go to university, IBM has developed a tech program with high schools and community colleges to help those students prepare for the jobs of tomorrow. Rometty said that 15% of IBM’s new employees in the U.S. last year came from the new program. IBM is trying to apply the same kind of leadership thinking to its relationships with suppliers, customers, academic partners and the public.

Rometty said the imperative comes from a simple view: “This is a decade of trust.” And the trusted leader.


John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada's leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization's research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don't live here but exert their influence from afar.

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.