Global Leadership in the Age of Turbulence

Insights from CISL's 2024 Global Leadership Summit


Lindsay Hooper, CEO (Interim), CISL

The below are the recommendations of Global Leadership in the Age of Turbulence synthesis report. Read the full report here.

Responsible, effective leadership is never easy. But the challenges facing today’s leaders are of a different order than generations past. Crises no longer present themselves in isolation, but as part of an interconnected and hugely complex web. The trajectory of progress over recent decades – and many of the political and economic models that have underpinned this – is being fundamentally challenged. As a result, it is rarely obvious what the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers are, and the solutions that leaders need to adopt are far from clear.

As well as lacking clear pathways to a sustainable future, leaders – whether governmental, intergovernmental, financial or corporate – often lack room for manoeuvre. Faced with a barrage of market, political and media pressures, seemingly irreconcilable differences between the needs of different stakeholders, together with high geopolitical and social instability and exponential tech-driven change, they face new challenges, resistance and hurdles at every turn.

Those at the top of our institutions are not without blame in this scenario. We have witnessed a widespread failure over many years to fundamentally address today’s underlying challenges. A substantial part of this failure centres on the prioritisation of short-term private and political interests over the long-term interests of societies and the environment upon which they depend.

This failure brings consequences for public trust. As environmental crises accelerate and wealth inequality grows, confidence is falling in the national and international institutions and processes that are supposed to be delivering solutions. The perception that governments are overly influenced by wealth, power and vested interests is also deepening, leading people to distrust politicians and disengage in political processes. A similar scenario is affecting companies. As corporate pledges to pursue sustainable business models remain largely unfulfilled and unsustainable business practices continue to grow, the credibility of the private sector to address these issues is diminishing.

Against this backdrop, simply doubling down on longstanding approaches to achieving a sustainable future or trying to move forward with existing strategies despite destabilising crises and new headwinds, risks failure. Escaping today’s worrying ‘doom loop’ will take a new agenda for leadership. In response to this challenge, the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) co-convened a multi-sectoral Global Leadership Summit in February 2024 alongside Professor Richard Calland and Professor Shruti Kapila, bringing together leaders from a broad range of sectors internationally for open, challenging and necessary discussions. Through conversations ranging across geopolitics, global governance, domestic politics, economics, finance and technology, the Summit sought to answer the question: what leadership is needed now, and from whom?

This paper provides a summary of the main insights from the Summit (conducted under the Chatham House Rule), all of which offer hope for the way forward.

Of course, the ecological infrastructure on which the global economy relies has been abused for too long, trust levels are too low, and polarisation and conflict are too high to allow for quick or easy fixes. Leaders will need to make tough and courageous decisions, to have the purpose and resilience to sustain momentum, and – perhaps most importantly – to inspire and empower action at scale. This requires honesty about the underlying challenges, acknowledgement that long-term prosperity cannot always be achieved without disrupting short-term profitability, and that no organisation and no country can be future-proofed while the rest of the world remains at risk. It also requires optimism. Optimism in human ingenuity and resilience, in the potential for international collaboration to enable co-existence on a finite planet and in the lessons we can learn from nature’s ability to adapt and regenerate.

While the stakes could not be higher, with such leadership at the helm, achieving monumental change remains very much possible.  

Recommendation 1: Accelerating Innovation

Accelerating innovation through speeding the deployment of proven technologies; ensuring innovation is focused where it is most needed, and addressing the risks of disruption and harm.

Technology is advancing at an exponential rate. Proven technologies represent a key component in the transition to a sustainable future, as do novel technological solutions that are only just emerging. Without falling into excessive techno-optimism, all leaders must equip themselves to make the case for technology as a driver of a sustainable transition. 

To make a convincing case, however, leaders will need to overcome, and take seriously, the barriers and risks that currently restrict responsible deployment, and guard against the potential impacts of irresponsible deployment. Technology alone will not solve our problems and leaders will need to advocate for policy and financial models that are both supportive and responsible. They will also need to engage citizens to ensure the public acceptability of novel solutions.

Often well-founded societal fear of negative consequences of poorly thought-through or intentioned use of technology also needs to be addressed. Clarifying that technologies are in themselves neither good nor bad is an important first step towards reassuring those with concerns. Putting in place the measures society needs to manage technology risks is also key, and leaders across all sectors need to ensure that robust guardrails are placed around the development and use of new technologies. In this way, risks of negative outcomes can be reduced and opportunities for positive outcomes maximised.

Technological development must be steered for the public good, and this is primarily the job of governments given their ultimate responsibility for the wellbeing of citizens. This will involve finding ways to engage public and private sectors as well as citizens in the design and delivery of incentives and regulation for responsible tech-led solutions to sustainability challenges.

Inclusivity is also critical. The concerns and aspirations, as well as new thinking and perspectives of marginalised groups need to be incorporated into the tech development process from the start. Ensuring meaningful citizen involvement also involves pushing for the tools and investment to deliver widespread digital literacy to enable participation.

Such participation will act as a brake against the tech industry’s instinct to pursue a "move-fast-and-break-things" approach, which can lead to an impairment of individual and collective rights in the name of innovation. Instead, by making the scaling up of new technological development a more deliberative democratic process, future technologies can come into being with long-term societal needs at their centre. This needs to be balanced with a commitment to experimentation and creative destruction, which are the engines of innovation.

Recommendation 2: New Economic Thinking

An economic system that privileges and protects the delivery of public goods, social structures and the environmental foundations on which human society is built is essential for a sustainable future. 

Leaders in government and business need to join together in arguing for the common benefits of such a system. No longer can the short-term interests of capital holders be permitted to dictate the global economy. This will require not only changes in national and international governance and regulation, but also a shift in mindset regarding the purpose of the economy and the role of the private sector within it.

Governments have a central role in enabling more sustainable economic activity. Here, the game-changing role of well-designed governments incentives should be top of mind for leaders. The galvanising effect of the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States is the latest in a number of illustrative examples of the market-shaping influence that governments can have. The financial and policy support of Germany’s energy transition support or China’s central government to advance the country’s industrial and clean energy manufacturing capacity provides other such cases.

Such interventionist government strategy increasingly characterises current economic practice, and comes with benefits but also challenges in terms of market distortions. The most effective interventions will come from dialogue between business and government but will also need to be informed by healthy scepticism about the risk of vested interests.

Ultimately, a sustainable economy will grow out of enabling market structures and enlightened governance that protects and restores nature, while providing climate stability and social equality. It is the responsibility of those currently in positions of power to galvanise the international public-private co-operation and collective commitments necessary for these conditions. 

Finally, a successful transition must entail a reset of the financial system, which has become too focused on short-term profits at the cost of profoundly negative impacts for climate and nature – and ultimately for societies. This should have two elements: looking at how finance works in the economy and looking at how the economy is organised around finance.

On the first, mobilising capital for the transition is an absolute imperative for building a sustainable economy. Leaders should not shy away from admitting that government coffers will never suffice to finance the transition alone. By the same token, they should act on the fact that high volumes of private capital are now available for a more sustainable (and thus economically secure) future. Creative ways need to be found to mobilise this private capital. Here, leaders must challenge concerns around perceived investment risk by pointing out that this risk is often highly exaggerated, especially in African countries and other emerging low-income economies around the world. Curbing the negative influence of rating agencies’ cautiousness will help.

On the second, change needs to emerge from shifting the consensus around how governments, regulators, businesses and investors each measure their success. We cannot build a sustainable economy by optimising short-term shareholder value. Indeed, many of the economic gains of the era before the 2008 financial crisis have turned out to be somewhat illusory, as the real gains in terms of practical assets rather than financialised value have turned out to be much thinner. Leaders need to focus on developing assets and activities that provide long-term value for society as well as the economy.

Recommendation 3: Engaging and Activating Citizens

Transitioning society onto a truly sustainable basis cannot happen without the active involvement of citizens. Given today’s public cynicism across many political systems, the challenge of mobilising citizens en masse is substantial. As a starting point, leaders must acknowledge the role that ineffective governance and unaccountable decision-making – both at the political and corporate level – has had in undermining trust and thereby fostering citizen disengagement.

In this vein, those in positions of power must use their voice and influence to call for improved governance and accountability. This is as true for those heading up private sector institutions as those in government or civil society. In parallel, leaders across the board should commit to make decision-making processes as open and inclusive as possible. No longer can powerful elites and vested interests be allowed to manipulate these processes to their advantage.

Good governance also requires leaders to demand a change in time horizons. For too long, citizens’ long-term security and wellbeing have been sacrificed to the short-term interests of individual leaders and the interested parties that they represent. From here on, all leaders must act with the future good of society uppermost in mind. To prove their seriousness, they should provide robust implementation plans and targets, together with meaningful mechanisms for holding themselves to account.

We live in difficult times, with many interlocking and urgent challenges. Citizens know this. They are looking for institutional leaders who will be honest with them about the hard choices ahead. Trust comes not from telling people what they want to hear, but rather from having the moral courage to push against the tide and say what needs to be said. When political leaders boldly step out in this fashion, it behoves those with influence in the private sector and civil society to back them up and reinforce their prioritisation of our collective long-term wellbeing. 

Finally, leaders need to acknowledge that they are not the only ones fighting for citizens’ hearts and minds. Today’s media is heavily influenced by vested interests who are active in polarising and caricaturing discussions of sustainability as well as many other complex and nuanced issues. Pushing back against this relentless discourse is essential. Leaders need to assert a positive argument for sustainability, for dialogue and compromise, and for the role of everyday citizens around the world in helping to shape decisions and implement them. Creating participatory processes through which citizens can be empowered to take action and thus be part of delivering the decisions they are helping make represents a natural next step for leaders.  

Recommendation 4: Global Governance

Opportunities to strengthen global governance and co-operation.

Voluntarism is not a solid basis for global governance. Institutional leaders must reaffirm international law – applied fairly and equally – as the basis for geopolitical stability, trade, and economic development, including for business actors. In a world where ‘great powers’ increasingly treat international institutions and laws as optional, and the interests of privileged elites rather than societal needs are perceived to drive decision-making, leaders should make the case for a rules and institutions based system that everyone can be part of.

At the same time, the world’s current multilateral organisations (particularly Bretton Woods institutions) face many justified criticisms, especially from politically and economically marginalised stakeholders who feel shut out. Government leaders should welcome an open debate about these concerns and seek constructive ways to resolve them. Private sector leaders should support this and work to create the space for such discussions. 

Such discussions must acknowledge the historic imbalances that remain embedded within many global governance institutions and processes. With this in mind, government leaders should commit to power-sharing agreements and other modes of procedural inclusion, recognising that these can play a valuable role in build future legitimacy in global governance. 

In the spirit of building a global governance system based on the ‘leadership of the many’, space needs to be created for the wide participation of all sectors of society – from citizen groups up to national governments. However, broad representation will be ineffective if not accompanied by inclusive modes of dialogue, coupled with a commitment to action. Leaders of all kinds should share examples of action-oriented dialogue as a means of inspiring its continuation. The remarkable achievement of the Paris Agreement – arrived at after tense and complicated negotiations at the 2015 Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – stands out as just such an exemplar.

Regarding the COP process specifically, leaders cannot afford to abandon it, in spite of its flaws. Going forward, they should make every effort to eliminate vested interests from influencing negotiations and guarantee space for inclusive, open debate. Further, they should breathe new life into COPs by an unremitting commitment to ever-greater ambition. In parallel, leaders should place greater focus on other multilateral alliances relating to finance, trade and security as these carry huge implications for our ability to coexist on a finite planet. Both business and government have a role to play here in supporting such global processes and engaging with them effectively, transparently and in good faith.

Notwithstanding the above concerns about equity and inclusion, business should be confident about taking its place at the table. Companies genuinely committed to a just transition to a sustainable future can exert a progressive influence on global governance. They can advocate the common good through multisector platforms, as well as bring pragmatic and evidence-based perspectives from the frontlines of the real economy, as many are doing already. In respect of the international legal system specifically, business leaders can contribute by supporting the development of robust sustainability standards. As a minimum, such standards must radically raise the bar of corporate performance. Beyond that, however, they should also present a transformative vision of business in a governance context, setting out how the private sector can become a powerful engine of global peace, equality and prosperity for all.

Recommendation 5: New Approaches to Decision-Making

Developing novel models and better research/evidence-informed thinking to address mis/disinformation, institutional siloes and vested interests.

Too much decision-making begins with a focus rooted in the status quo. Recent history has featured multiple examples of the limits of models and mindsets rooted in the current moment that have been unable to comprehend or encompass the level of change that the world is experiencing, or needs to experience, to navigate the critical challenges of sustainability. 

This bias towards the past and the present inevitably limits visions of the potential futures and perpetuates incrementalism and incumbency. Leaders of all kinds therefore need to strive for new decision-making approaches and tools that are adequate for today’s changing and highly complex and interconnected context, in which there is a need to deliver multiple outcomes, to navigate competing demands and interests, and to be able to understand not just a static situation but also a dynamic set of possibilities.  

This will require an openness to starting with what is needed, and not simply what is currently likely, convenient or economically viable. It will also require consideration not only of the cost of action, but the implications of inaction, and the willingness to embrace uncertainty and incorporate the unknown without creating false certainty around it. Many of the decisions that leaders need to take are in previously uncharted territory, where data or evidence do not yet exist. This will require the wisdom and courage to make the best possible judgements in the circumstances rather than wait for tried and tested solutions.  

Decision-makers need to be willing to ask for and use new and different tools to engage with these questions. Some of this work can be supported through a greater use of visioning, scenarios and options modelling. Some insights can be supported by advances in digital technology and AI. Big data analytics, in particular, opens up exciting opportunities to better understand complex scenarios and identify critical levers and actions for unlocking large-scale change. In other cases deep understanding of the systems dynamics, and how uncertainty and lack of clarity affects wider choices, can be made accessible to human study through simpler modelling approaches that might yield richer results. Understanding the implications of and limitations of any tool is essential. 

While tools are important, there is also a need to be proactive in seeking relevant sources of insight and evidence – including insight into the needs and expectations of those affected by decisions, or on whom there is a critical dependency. Where decisions require engagement and concerted action by multiple players, work to develop shared language and understanding of the necessary outcomes, options and contextual factors may be essential prerequisites for good decisions. This can benefit from insight from a breadth of disciplines and regions, but also taking a long view of lessons learned to date. 

 Beyond this, decisions should be made in a context where they are open to discussion, debate, and, where necessary, pushback. It falls on leaders’ shoulders to ensure that marginalised stakeholders in particular feel that their voice is heard. This will involve effective checks and balances to reduce the disproportionate influence of dominant powerholders.  

Value should be placed on the principles of experimentation and flexibility. Given the complexity and dynamism of today’s systems, not all outcomes can be perfectly predicted. Leaders therefore need to be bold in taking a purposeful approach to catalysing change. If they fail, then they should fail fast and apply the lessons for that failure. 
Where they succeed, they should share, scale and replicate that success. 

Finally, if they are successfully to measure up to the rigours of decision-making on the existential questions posed by many sustainability challenges, then leaders’ principles have a critical role to play. Decision-makers need clarity of purpose and ideally a commitment to work in support of the long-term interests of societies, rather than the advancement of personal interests or political agendas. Without that they risk coming to questions that they will lack the compass to navigate.

Conclusions for Leadership

The core challenge explored over the course of the Summit was nothing less than the challenge of preserving human civilisation. This is the leadership challenge of our times.  

Addressing the scale and complexity of the challenge will take everything, everywhere, all at once. Progress will be messy and unsatisfactory; leaders need to grow comfortable with this fact.  

This requires the aptitude, intellectual honesty, integrity and humility to recognise that the world is complex and that progress will not be easy, but that this is no excuse for putting one’s head in the sand. Rather, there is a need to embrace the messiness and frustration of complexity, taking not just a wide view of the context, but also a long view of history, human ingenuity, resilience and revolution; to recognise that different contexts will require different solutions, and that we do not all need to share the same worldviews and political systems to be able to work together. 

This starts with an openness to seeing the world as it is and accepting the validity of perspectives from across the spectrum, especially from those who bear the most significant consequences of historic injustices and are most at risk from today’s crises, yet who are too often excluded from decision-making. To really hear and understand what is happening, leaders need to escape their own echo chambers, which only serve to reinforce their existing worldviews, and to be open to difficult conversations and inconvenient truths.  

A clear and sustained strategic intent is critical. We are past the time for relying only on incremental improvements to the status quo and urgently need to catalyse new economic models in which capital is allocated where it is most needed to address social and global challenges. In support of this, we need leadership that is committed to building new alliances that bridge growing divides, to harnessing the exponential growth in tech capability to identify new solutions, and to put in place governance at international, national and institutional levels to ensure that decisions are guided by societies’ long-term needs. 

 Importantly, it will require changes not only to what we do, but also to how we do it. For those in positions of power and influence, it will require changes of mindset, narrative and approaches to decision-making. Indeed, it will require fundamental shifts in approaches to leadership.  

This includes an obligation and the moral courage to be honest to society, to tell the truth about the scale of the challenge, and the underlying human causes, and to be frank about the tough choices and the necessary changes that lie ahead. This means being clear that maintaining the status quo is no longer an option available to us, and that delaying action is the riskiest and most costly strategy. That no country or institution can be fully ‘future-proofed’ in an unstable and fractured world. That we do not have the luxury of being able to wait until the solutions are obvious and proven, or until the short-term economics are favourable. And that it may not always be possible to secure long-term resilience and prosperity without disruption to short-term growth and profitability. Candour is an important pre-requisite for much-needed trust building. 

Alongside this, a shift in the current tone and language of sustainability debates is urgently needed; a shift from a spirit of either cynical pessimism or empty boosterism, combined with blame and misinformation, to one of qualified optimism, possibility and progress. This requires acknowledging what is not working, recognising where progress is inadequate and more is needed, while celebrating and building upon the successes that have been achieved. 

Perhaps most fundamentally, there is a need to rethink the role of those in positions of power and influence, looking beyond the simplistic tropes of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, while at the same time not being naïve about the vested interests that seek to perpetuate the status quo. Rather than seeing themselves as heroic saviours (and inevitably failing to deliver on this promise), there is a need for institutional leaders across business, finance and government to see their roles as catalysts, facilitators and enablers of change with and by societies. As well as providing positive visions of possibility and narratives that engage across polarised divides, there is also a need for processes and spaces to enable citizens to participate in tough decisions, to co-create solutions and to self-organise to build resilience across societies.   The wider the conversation, the greater the hope of a rapid, system-level solution.