For more than four decades, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting has been a beacon for future-focused leaders. Held amongst the beautiful scenery of Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, the event brings together some of the world’s foremost heads of state, business leaders, policymakers, academics, and societal leaders. Their purpose is to engage in constructive, solutions-focused discourse about global issues and the challenges faced by humanity.
As expected, messages from Davos 2019 dominated business news for almost a full week. Articles, speeches, and reports discussing the state of global markets and the economy came from various influential leaders. Nearly all expressed responsibility to shaping a better future for all us.
In past years, I looked forward to hearing the different perspectives of this impressive group of speakers. Something new on the horizon almost certainly would emerge. Leaders would confidently identify the challenges they must face together. I found comfort knowing leaders from around the world had a handle on peering into the future, recognizing the shifts that were happening, and making plans to work aggressively to meet the future, even when the task wasn’t always easy.
This year was different. There were few new messages and few examples of progress. Many of the presentations sounded more like earning calls or quarterly shareholder presentations than real progress reports or statements of commitment to work together to address the increasingly complex issues that demand integrated solutions from our world’s leaders. This shift made me wonder – has Davos become just another forum to report status quo? Has it become another event where PR and marketing campaigns override thought leadership and courageous action? Has it lost is value to future-focused leaders?
I might have to say yes if it weren’t for a few of the courageous voices that dared to speak out against sameness and momentum. In particular, one young, soft and steady voice spoke truth to power.
“You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.”
– Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg is a sixteen-year-old climate activist who is becoming a prominent voice for humanity’s future. In August of 2018, Greta started the first school strike for climate outside by sitting outside the Swedish parliament building. In the last six months, she clearly presented her perspective on climate change at leadership forums such as TEDx Stockholm, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and the World Economic Forum. She is active on social media, encouraging other children to be heard. And they are.
On January 31st, 30,000 school children across Belgium went on strike for change. Her message is resonating. But the real power behind her impact seems to be something more. Greta has presented a new mental model about what is going on – and about what we need to do about it. In the process of standing up for climate change, she has demanded that we shed old mental models to create room for new ones that are more likely to shape the behaviors that will save our planet.
What are mental models?
Put simply, mental models are beliefs about how things work. Starting in childhood, humans construct mental models through interactions with other people and the things around us. We develop an understanding of the world and how it operates. We organize this information to create building blocks of knowledge. We process this knowledge through our belief systems to understand what’s happening and why. It’s not hard to understand why mental models are necessary for leaders. Nonetheless, in their focus and busyness, many leaders become entrenched in long-held knowledge and belief systems. It takes a new voice to jolt them to look up, ask fresh questions, and think differently.
Greta has done this very thing. At such a young age and in only a year, she became a resonant voice for global climate change. While her prominence certainly is due to the quality of her message and the boldness of her actions, one other reason for her noteworthiness is because she processes information in a slightly different way than many of those to whom she is speaking. In other words, her mental models are distinct. Greta has autism. She takes in the world in a way that is less defined by nuance and clearer in detail. This mental model moves Greta to zero in on the central point – which at Davos was this: “Either we choose to go on as a civilization, or we don’t.”
As leaders, our mental models may not include having to determine whether or not civilization may endure. But shouldn’t they? Our existing models may be more honed on growth, innovation, business climate and the operational challenges of the day. This focus has been the expectation placed on us as today’s leaders. We have been trained and developed to lead our organizations to grow and dominate markets. But in today’s dynamic and disruptive environment is it enough? It’s a worthwhile exercise to stop and consider – what do I believe? How do those beliefs shape what I know? Moreover, how are those mental models prompting me to behave and make decisions?
The world is increasingly hyperconnected and dynamic. Each new intersection creates even bigger challenges for humankind. The world needs more future-focused leaders who understand how the outcomes of their organization’s decisions are connected and may have unintended consequences for all of us. Whether they are addressing climate change or another pressing issue like human migration, feeding global populations, or the health of our biosphere – the discussions must all factor through mental models.
True future-focused leaders look into the future to see what could happen next to make better decisions today, not just for their organizations but for the collective global society. Thanks to a legacy of deep conversations and new voices like Greta Thunberg’s, Davos could be that place where the leaders come together to understand complexities, plan together, and adapt mental models to address the interconnected and extremely urgent issues facing humanity.
“The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn't do anything while there still was time to act.”
– Greta Thunberg
This sixteen-year-old is future-focused. Do your mental models enable you to process such a broad sense of consequence?
Deborah Westphal is a passionate humanist who has guided our era’s top minds and leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections and resilience for a secure and sound future. Her career spans more than 30 years in government agencies and Fortune 100 companies, and on virtually every continent. In 1999, Alvin Toffler tapped her as one of the founding members of his eponymous consulting firm, Toffler Associates. From 2007 through 2018, she served as the firm’s CEO and has since contributed her experience and knowledge as a member of the board. Through her work, she has guided notable organizations including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Marriott, U.S. Air Force, Baxter International, Bayer, Heinz, Microsoft, Koppers, PPG, DARPA, National Security Agency, Loral Space Systems, NASA, Qwest, Verizon, and Westinghouse. Deborah’s empathetic and thought-provoking style helps readers spot patterns that signify future risks and opportunities. She’s a sought-after speaker and writer who provided the Foreword to After Shock. Her book, Convergence: Technology, Business, and the Human-Centric Future, was published in May 2021 by Unnamed Press. Find her at deborahwestphal.com.
Toffler Associates is a future-focused strategic advisory firm. Our Future Proof® business consulting approach helps global leaders understand how future shifts impact current decisions so they can take advantage of opportunity, manage risk, and create future value.
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