Today sees the start of another World Economic Forum, the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
Davos itself is a far from inspiring town – and this year, the selected ‘leadership priorities’ seem all too predictable. They are based around the demands of a ‘complex, uncertain and anxious world’ which requires that leaders ‘must be receptive to signals that are constantly arriving from an ever-changing landscape’. The agenda calls for leaders with ‘vision and a way forward, so that people can imagine a better future’. The overall theme for the Forum is ‘Responsive and Responsible Leadership’. Perhaps it will start with public declarations of massive pay cuts for the executives attending and a promise of new management and measurement systems that inspire ethical behaviour. But somehow, I doubt it.
While not questioning any of the sentiments that underpin this year’s theme, I wonder what hole any leader unaware of them has been hiding in. Equally, I would expect anyone at Davos to be already far advanced in addressing the ‘five key challenges’ that are being discussed. Those challenges are:
- Coming to grips with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is ‘redefining entire industries and creating new ones’. This is the theme generated by ground-breaking technologies such as artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, robotics and the Internet of Things. It not only transforms business, but also adds to social divisions.
- The need for a ‘dynamic, inclusive multi-stakeholder global governance system. This represents a call for collaboration and cooperation on a new scale, reflecting the realities of a globally networked world. Perhaps a good start here might be to announce the scrapping of elitist forums such as Davos!
- Restoring global growth. Quite obviously, growth is fundamental to improved living standards and today’s growing levels of structural unemployment challenge social inclusion and stability.
- A reform of market capitalism, restoring the compact between business and society. Leaders are urged to address the challenges of short-termism, wealth inequality and cronyism. Indeed important goals, yet hard to see that those attending Davos will undertake the self-surgery required to shift their own behavior and values. It may be another, newly emergent group of leaders who will eventually create the vision necessary to address these weaknesses.
- “The pervasive crisis in identity formation” is the final challenge – the erosion of traditional norms and beliefs and ‘a sense of belonging’. This, it is suggested, has generated the populism seen in 2016, which threatens social stability and prosperity. Of course, seen another way, it is exactly the challenge that was needed to force today’s leaders to stop taking the world for granted and to demand a rebalancing of power and decision-making – in other words a good and perhaps inevitable uprising of ‘the masses’.
To me, this list simply reflects the extent to which the leaders at Davos are actually devoid of meaningful ideas. Perhaps the real message is that it is time for new ideas and new leaders – perhaps a group of people who do not need the luxury and extravagance of Davos to demonstrate their concern for broader human welfare.