Today’s Leadership Imperative

Solving today’s unprecedented challenges will require a completely new approach to leadership, one in which women have a critical role in bringing new kinds of alliances together. That was one of the clear messages at the International Women’s Forum, a gathering of more than 700 people from across business, government and NGOs that we attended as Edelman’s IWF delegates recently in Stockholm.

The event’s theme — sustainability — extended well beyond environmental concerns, with discussions covering everything from business to politics to pressing societal challenges. Session speakers pulled no punches in addressing what is required if we want to change the present global dynamics around issues like climate change, populism and human rights. But across every issue and every session, what struck us most as we took in these passionate debates was the simple, yet powerful concept that “partnership is the new leadership,” which took on increased meaning over the course of the two-day event.

Despite their diverse backgrounds — from a former UN Secretary General and Swedish Environmental Minister to company CEOs and activists — all agreed that it is only through genuine partnership that lasting solutions to the issues impacting our world can be found. Everyone has a part to play, and it’s not always the same role — but that’s as it should be. It’s more about being part of a solution rather than trying to “be the leader” and go it alone, which too many brands and individuals still try to do. Change that builds a truly sustainable world requires looking outward to see how to collaborate with disparate individuals or organizations, to carefully listen and learn from others to advance your thinking, and to realize that a business’s obligation is no longer only to its stakeholders.

In that context, Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili, vice president of the World Bank’s Africa Region and co-convenor of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, said something that is worth pondering: we need a more communal way of working and women, by nature, are typically more inclined to that approach. While this idea could be dismissed by some as a gross over-simplification, and is certainly as much a quality of character (whether you’re a man or a woman), it rings true for many women.

Clearly there still is a long way to go, though, to ensure more women are in the ranks. Despite the increase of women in leadership globally, the numbers are still appallingly poor; according to research gathered by UN Women, a global champion for gender equality, only 22.8 percent of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016. The Pew Research Center reports that as of 2017, the share of Fortune 500 female CEOs was a dismal 5.4 percent. When examining female board members across that same Fortune 500 audience, the number rises to a more promising 20.2 percent, but that’s barely a 10 percent increase from where we were 22 years ago in 1995 (9.6 percent).

As Edelman’s IWF delegates, we are quite proud to be part of an organization that actively works to increase the number of women in top leadership positions to 50 percent. There is an untapped potential in the power of female leadership and in embracing the power of “collaboration” rather than the “self.”

Regardless of gender, nationality or background, we each stand to benefit from embracing this “partnership = new leadership,” which can be applied at different levels:

  • Any brand, company, or non-profit can benefit from positioning itself as collaborative versus going it alone. One example is Swedfund. Owned by the Swedish state, it provides risk capital in emerging markets. Swedfund partnered with a multinational clothing-retail company on an initiative to improve the textile industry in Ethiopia. Their partnership strategy created workforce transformation that substantially improved quality of life, especially for female workers. Another synergistic example is the partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a global pharmaceutical company to revolutionize access to an injectable contraceptive for women in some of the world’s poorest countries.
  • As communications marketing professionals, we must ensure that we use the partnership/communal approach in the way we work within teams. We must always consider integrating external partners while building value for our clients.
  • Personally, we returned from IWF with more of an “activist” mindset. Inaction is often caused by people feeling that their actions will make no difference, which is a dangerous construct. We realize that WE can also do more as individuals to drive change, whether through partnerships with select organizations or simply by working together with other individuals looking to give time, attention and support to a cause that means something to them. We can act as agents of change.

Looking back on the event, the words of Dr. Ezekwesili remain fixed in our minds: “You only become voiceless by choice. Your voice must be used because you don’t have it just for yourself.” We move forward from here, charging ourselves to be active partners who drive change and create a more sustainable world for all.

Cathy Yue (Asia), Marisa Maldonado (Latin America), Nina Godard (Canada), Ola Kozik (Europe) and Rupa Patel (United States) were Edelman’s 2017 delegates to the International Women’s Forum.