Weekend at Davos: Don't expect neat conclusions

Heidrick & Struggles' Kevin Kelly reflects on what, if anything, was achieved at Davos this year.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's early evening Sunday, February 1st, and Davos 2009 is over. I got off the mountain earlier today and I'm sitting in a Zürich hotel lobby. I recognize a few other delegate CEOs, but this is our first time in a week with no meetings and we give each other plenty of space. The best hot shower in the world is the one you take after running a marathon. I feel the same way about the cup of coffee beside me. I spend Monday in our London office and then head home to Chicago Tuesday.

I've been looking at some of the online coverage, and I see a frustrated desire to give Davos neat scores. How pessimistic/optimistic was it? How collaborative? How useful? The answers to those questions depend on who you talk to.

In any case, neat scores miss the point. The World Economic Forum doesn't do conclusions, but it does provoke and initiate. We all knew beforehand we were connected, but 2,600 leaders comparing notes for five days brings the interdependence point home. Davos helps people imagine new ways of serving the interests of their organisations and countries. That doesn't mean a stampede for collaboration, but it does make collaboration more likely. The objective of Davos 2009 - to shape the post-crisis world - drew sneers from commentators who found it too ambitious. But my team and I are more convinced than ever that the new world order isn't possible without the Forum. Within weeks the governments of Qatar, Singapore and Switzerland will propose a new financial framework that was conceived at Davos. World leaders hand-in-hand with stirring music in the background? Not just yet, but I believe and hope that the G20 summit will see agreements that were unimaginable before Davos.

I'll finish with two themes close to the Forum's heart.

The first is renewable energy. We had a lot of conversations with the leading lights of the greentech space. This field is exciting because it's a rare confluence of ideology and political and commercial interest. It gets more prominent by the day, our employees are incredibly pumped about it, renewable energy is a growing market for us, and it attracts some of world's best talent (for example, Kleiner Perkins is central to the greentech vision of the new American administration and its partners include Al Gore and John Doerr). We're useful because we know a lot of influential people, and because we can help these firms work out what their future talent should look like - the particular combination of skills and experience and attitudes that will make them grow.

The second theme is leadership in uncertain times. It was a subtext of the entire annual meeting, and the explicit subject of a public session yesterday where I was one of the members of the panel. Conclusions were over-ambitious - the session lasted just over an hour - but it was a great discussion even so. At the back of my mind was a 24 year-old Columbian student called Pablo Camacho. He was in Davos as an amateur journalist, having won the YouTube competition for his video on leadership and ethics. He echoes the worldview of the Young Global Leaders (a Forum initiative we help with). They represent a generation of future players who think they can do better than us. Call them naïve, or choose to see this storm as liberating, because chaos gives you permission to change the rules.

This has many implications, but I'll pick just one I'm taking back to Chicago with me. The greatest leaders (and teachers and negotiators) recognize that enthusiasm and optimism are voluntary and fragile, and also vital. So my daily antidote to this pandemic of uncertainty will be to instil confidence in the people around me. It takes courage to lead this way, but then fortune favors the brave.

Monday postscript. Just arrived in London which is under six inches of snow. A sign that the Davos spirit is infectious, maybe?

In today's bulletin:
Snow joke - Woolworths back from the dead
Ryanair feels the chill with Q3 loss
Weekend at Davos: Don't expect neat conclusions
A window on the world of business
Freud uncovered - in the style of Freud

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