Young leaders can help shape the world by first cultivating their own capacity to connect with and understand others.
“Every generation thinks it’s special, my grandparents because they remember World War II, my parents because of discos and the moon. We have the Internet. Millions and billions of doors we can open and shut.”
When I first read this, in Marina Keegan’s Opposite of Loneliness, I felt infinitely hopeful about the possibilities for this generation of digital natives. It was an unique time in my life — I had just quit my first job out of university working in finance to join a start-up project at an environmental nonprofit. My parents were confused with my choice, but I was armed with reports and surveys summarizing the millennials’ desire for meaningful work. This sentiment was distilled perfectly in a New York Times article Millennial Searchers that I read again and again, and the trend lines assured me I was doing the right thing.
Studying finance during the global economic crisis had not turned me into a cynic, but I was critical of the definitions of career and life success assigned to us that were passed down from previous generations. I looked around and saw many of my friends shared the same sense of urgency to understand the system our elders created, in hopes of remaking a kinder version.
Now, a few years later, in 2017, I feel differently. Part of me worries that we are just another generation of well intentioned young people with aspirations for change who might later compromise their authentic values as they navigate the broken system. The series of cascading crises at times seem too complex for our leaders and experts to tackle, not because they lack technical answers, but because they seem unable or unwilling to find the clarity that real solutions demand. We are missing leaders who can reflect on an expansive picture of challenges in the system and in themselves, while looking past narrow interests.
Considering these challenges, how might young people properly prepare ourselves to shape the world?
I find myself asking this question often and especially this week as I attend the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos as one of the 50 Global Shapers – young men and women under 30, who come from Tripoli to Tianjin, and are working to improve our communities.
The 2017 Davos meeting is designed around the theme of “Responsible and Responsive Leadership.” The topic couldn’t be more relevant, given the backdrop of the global rise in protectionism, populism and nativism. This is all while the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues to challenge the boundaries of our physical, digital and biological systems with advances in artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, self-driving vehicles, 3-D printing, and other disruptive technologies.
The agenda is ambitious, but so is the type of leadership the world now needs. Economic anxieties are exerting dramatic pressures on the promise that everyone can find fulfilling identities. The story of those left behind often features the 50-year old steel-factory worker, but it can also be the 25-year old blue-collar millennial, who is not portrayed in media.
Davos is calling on leaders to develop the dual system of what Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of World Economic Forum, calls the radar and the compass — the radar to listen and be receptive to a multitude of voices, and the compass to guide compassionate actions anchored in values.
More timely now than ever before, this notion challenges leaders to not reject populist ideas as something to be defeated, but rather acknowledge that peoples’ fear and anger are legitimate. The call to action is simple yet incredibly difficult to achieve – only by appreciating emotionally and cognitively the realities of others can we build the trust to inspire truly new approaches. In many ways, the assumption-challenging conversations at Davos are asking leaders, young and old, to reflect on this quote from the poet Rumi: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
To be young in any generation is an unsettling experience. It is at once scary and exciting, much like the state of the world in 2017. As we prepare to live up to the noble mission of improving the state of the world, the Davos mandate reminds us that we must first cultivate our own capacities to connect, to understand and to reinvent ourselves.
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