Photo by World Economic Forum/Mattias Nutt

Posted in: thought leadership

30th January 2019

To B or Not To B in Davos

By Halla Tómasdóttir

Last week I traveled to Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting. I was frankly unsure if this was a good venue for The B Team to carry forth the message of “B Leadership”—a leadership model that centers on purpose, principles, courage and humility.

While these are qualities any leader who truly wants to make positive impact needs to practice, I could not ignore the fact that these felt lacking among many participants. I struggle to believe that change will come from those who hold a disproportionate amount of power, privilege and profits without much accountability toward our environment and humanity as a whole.

Davos is by no means perfect, but at the end of the week I left feeling optimistic in those speaking out and taking action against this crisis of conformity that has left us with a burning planet, a broken social contract and low trust the world over.

Tone-deaf in Davos?

While many leaders arrived in Davos with genuine intent to push for progress, there is ample evidence of how tone-deaf those who enjoy power for too long often become. On the back of all too many stories of widening gender pay and leadership gaps, one would have expected Davos organisers to have made serious efforts to make the conversation about the state of our world closer to being a gender balanced one. Women represented merely 20 percent of those in attendance and participants seemed overwhelmingly male, pale and stale. Fortune told the story of an all-male panel on blockchain, with one man wearing a t-shirt with “Women in Blockchain” printed on it.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but bringing true inclusivity to the table and digging deeper into the benefits of diversity is a must for Davos to deliver on its commitment to improving the state of the world. If companies can’t find but one woman out of five people they send, Davos should seriously consider introducing gender and diversity quotas.

Girl Power

Gladly, I experienced many truly powerful and inclusive moments in Davos. I participated in an oxford-style debate hosted by the New York Times around closing the gender leadership gap. The audience voted in agreement with my fellow pro-quota debaters that gender quotas are indeed needed to get the leadership and shift in values we need.

I also experienced a true Girl Power moment at a discussion around bending the emissions curve at the Arctic Basecamp, where scientists had set up camp throughout the week up on the Schatzalp Mountain. These scientists reminded us of the urgent facts about our melting ice caps and fearless climate activist Greta Thunberg demanded our world leaders hold themselves accountable for this most important crisis of our time. In her own words, “If we don’t tackle climate change, there is nothing else for us to do.”

Facing Our Climate Crisis With Courageous Leadership

Throughout the week, climate emerged as a major theme in many key conversations, even if it was not overtly stated on the agenda. The B Team co-hosted a climate action dinner with Engie, and its CEO and one of our Leaders Isabelle Kocher. Isabelle truly leads the way when it comes to bold and brave climate leadership.

The dinner included an interactive leadership challenge led by our Chair, Paul Polman. This activity lead CEOs in the room to question not only whether they are doing enough to act on climate, but whether they are truly showcasing the holistic leadership required to transform our economy. By the end of the night, it also encouraged some serious and ambitious commitments.“

That question, ‘what did you do?’, which is asked of me and of every single one of us, cannot be answered with the statement: I did the best I could. That is not good enough,” Our Leader Christiana Figueres said, urging dinner attendees to rise to this leadership challenge, “Because we know where we are. And we know what we can do. And we know the urgency. The question of ‘what did you do?’, can only be answered by the statement: I did everything that was necessary."

I have long wondered where courage comes from and why some leaders seem to embrace more of it than others. These times call for extraordinary amount of courage from all of our leaders and maybe we could find more of it if we bridged the generational gap in our conversations. One of our courageous B Team Leaders shared how his daughter had inspired him as a CEO and his company to do more when she asked a simple, but powerful question: “Daddy, are you proud of every product you sell?”

This company now invites the children of their board directors in for a discussion on environmental, social and governance issues. We should indeed hold ourselves accountable to the next generation, so perhaps we should take note and ask our children what they expect of us and include the next generation in the conversations that will shape their future. Chances are that their views and values best reflect what our future talent and customer pool wants.

Our Most Important Asset is Trust

Edelman introduced its 19th annual Trust Barometer in Davos. It showed once again that trust in governments, institutions and media remains low. It’s however interesting that more people—75 percent—trust their employer, as a source of reliable information and 76 percent expect their employers to positively contribute to social and environmental issues. They believe business leaders must take a hard look at their role in the world, take a long-term view and “walk the talk.” It seems we may be moving away from corporate social responsibility on the sidelines of business and into a new reality where purpose-driven and principled leadership is expected and needed for those who want to attract and retain talent, customers and increasingly shareholders as well.

This presents an opportunity for the private sector to rise to courageous leadership and work with employees and communities to deliver bold and brave solutions to our many pressing challenges while making sure we leave no one behind. A holistic approach to leadership is needed to restore our social contract and to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. If business commits to working within our planetary boundaries and to providing all people with the opportunity to engage at work and in society at large, business will indeed become a driving force for a better world.

While I certainly feel Davos has a ways to go toward being a truly inclusive venue, I left feeling like this was an essential place for The B Team to B. The momentum from businesses, activists, civil society organisations and more around changing the conversation, bringing more voices to the table and taking real action left me feeling inspired and energized to tackle our growing crises of inequality, climate change and trust.

If we return to Davos in 2020, it will be with the clear-eyed vision that better business can and must create a better world. One that isn’t solely shaped by the vision of those who profited while breaking our global systems and the social contract. Perhaps we will set up a “house of courage,” convening and collaborating with all those who want to be part of such a movement. Those who are willing to put their leadership to the test of the next generation.

We hope you will B there. B Bold. B Brave.