The leadership we need to meet the world’s toughest challenges

This article was originally published on 18 September, 2020 on the World Economic Forum’s Agenda.

September 22nd, 2020

  • Greta Thunberg’s climate movement and Black Lives Matter are examples of a new kind of leadership.
  • Inequality, desperation and frustration are fuelling new approaches to leadership.
  • Businesses must look beyond profits to broader social responsibility.

To address the world’s most pressing challenges, from climate change and environmental degradation, to social injustice and pandemics, we need leadership. While in the past, Governments or organized political parties dictated the agenda; today, leadership is diffused, varied, and often, unexpected.

In a matter of months, Greta Thunberg went from being a regular school child to a leader of the global climate change movement. After a school shooting in Florida in 2018, high-school students became the de facto leaders of a national campaign to end gun violence. The Black Lives Matter movement, which started with a social media post, has grown to a global phenomenon. These movements have arisen as a result of inequality, desperation with the state of the world, and insufficient response from those in power.

This new leadership works because it is genuine. It recognizes that we need more voices and find new solutions to old challenges.

But what’s the role of business in this new era? Can we expect similar leadership from businesses and their leaders, and if so, how will that look? Throughout history, businesses have teamed up in trade associations and chambers to influence policymakers and regulators. In sum, the objective was to create a favourable business environment. Addressing societal concerns was not high on the agenda.

However, forward-looking businesses realize that the world has changed. For example, the number of institutional investors committed to cutting fossil fuel stocks from their portfolios has increased from 180 in 2014 to more than 1,100 in 2019, representing $11 trillion dollars under management. In countries like Sweden, over 70 percent of consumers take sustainability concerns into consideration when purchasing goods and services. Businesses looking for investors, financing or consumers in the coming years, should take note.

So, businesses can either lead or follow. In Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand, a group of business leaders have chosen the first. They lead in an area that may seem surprising at first glance.

They have come together to lead the private sector charge on malaria in their countries. Together with the Asia Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance, they launched M2030 in 2018. Participating businesses use their platforms to raise awareness and funds for malaria programs. And, their founders and CEOs use their influence to advocate for malaria elimination and sustained public funding for health.

There’s no hidden motive. Instead, there’s a clear and openly stated objective: let’s get rid of malaria from Asia.

There are a few reasons why they have made malaria their cause. First, it’s arguably the world’s oldest disease, and the plague that has killed the most humans in history. And yet, for the first time ever, we can now see the end of malaria in Asia by 2030 or sooner. But to reach that goals, we need all hands-on-deck. Second, ending malaria will free up billions of dollars in healthcare costs and lead to long-term economic gains. Business leaders know a smart investment when they see one. And third, malaria programs help make the world a safer place. Malaria funds are used to train health workers, strengthen supply chain and monitoring systems, and to build networks of community health workers. In short, malaria programs make the world better equipped to also address other diseases including COVID-19.

We have entered the final ten years to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. With the rallying cry of a Decade of Action the UN is calling everyone around world to mobilizedemand action, and supercharge ideas to solutions. It’s a recognition that we’re falling behind, and that we need everyone – from individuals and civil society organizations, to governments and the private sector – to step up efforts. In today’s hyper-complex and interconnected world, the actions of one actor or sector is just not enough.

Leadership to address societal concerns often emerges as a reaction to events. When it happens, progress can be swift. But we cannot afford waiting for leadership to emerge spontaneously. As M2030 has shown, it’s possible to build purposeful platforms to spur joint actions. There are multiple other examples. In April this year, a collective of thought-leaders, businesses and foundations launched the Pandemic Action Network. It aims to ignite a global movement to put an end to COVID-19, and make sure that the world is better prepared for the next pandemic.

We need more initiatives like this. Not everyone can start their own network. But for those of us with agency, we can support, sponsor and align with movements that help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. And by doing so, we all lead. The future of the world depends on it.


By: Patrik Silborn, Head, External Relations and Financing, Asia Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance

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