The year 2016 will go down in history as the year when elites and powerful institutions were delivered a sharp blow, not least through the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s ascendance. In this context, what are we to make of 2017’s World Economic Forum annual meeting, kicking off next week in Davos, perceived by many as the ultimate gathering of world elites?
The theme of this year’s Davos is “Responsive and Responsible Leadership.” Responsive leadership requires that we listen to the aspirations and concerns of all our fellow citizens—including understanding and responding to the very real concerns expressed on the streets and in the ballot boxes in 2016. But let us also remember that responsible leadership, the other part of the equation, means defending principles that these same voters appear to have rejected.
The exercise of power in the post-financial-crisis world certainly leaves much to be desired. Income inequality continues to grow; too many people are excluded from power based on their gender, race, or other characteristics; and we continue to see blatantly unethical actions by institutions and leaders from the public and private sectors.
All this culminated in unexpected election results in two critical democracies, which in turn has led to the sudden rediscovery of the communities, needs, and perspectives that asserted themselves at the ballot box with a loud cry for change.
While this is the definition of responsive leadership, there is a huge risk, however, that in doing so, we will forsake crucial principles that should guide us politically, culturally, and economically.
After all, it is not elitist to stand up for human rights.
It is not elitist to defend climate science.
It is not elitist to embrace open societies—and, yes, open borders.
It is not elitist to demand respect for all people, nor to recognize that women, people of color, immigrants, and others have too often been failed by our economic and justice systems.
It is not elitist to defend journalists who seek the truth.
It is not elitist to consider the well-being of people across the globe (while also giving full attention to communities closer to home).
It is not elitist to call out leaders who give license to merchants of hate.
It is not elitist to expect that informal norms of civility and fairness be the guide star for all leaders.
So, as we welcome 2017, let us not only focus on power dynamics or the clarion call for change expressed by voters. The real question we face is whether all of us, as citizens, workers, politicians, or business executives, will defend essential values and principles. This is what responsible leadership demands, now more than ever.