How Millennials Can Create Global Systemic Change

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posted on March 12, 2012 in Grand Strategy, Leadership

Our world doesn’t need people to hand out fish. It doesn’t need people to teach others how to fish. It needs people to change the fishing industry entirely. That was the resounding message at the 2012 Harvard Social Enterprise Conference. The Harvard conference focused on social enterprise, but the underlying emphasis was on how the next generation of leaders can create innovative change, together, to tackle critical global challenges.

We live in a time of complex, cross-cutting, global challenges, from protracted conflict in the Middle East to climate change to the nearly 2 billion people living under $2 a day. Complex global challenges are systemic, and we need systemic solutions for systemic change. Poverty is an issue of employment, health, environment, education, governance, and security all rolled together. Poverty alleviation will only come through shifting our mindset on the problem and implementing holistic solutions. Middle East turmoil stems from a cacophony of economic, societal, and political issues, requiring whole of society approaches.

To create systemic change, we need cross-sector collaboration. Non-profits, governments, and corporations need to not only work together, but sustain deep, collaborative relationships for long periods of time. The social entrepreneur Bill Drayton has even suggested that we eliminate barriers between sectors all together—though it is unclear how to accomplish such an endeavor. As future leaders strive for greater cross-sector collaboration, they should also consider radically new models like the emerging “Fourth Sector” of for-benefit hybrid organizations that maximize financial investment for shareholders while also adding social value.

We also need behavioral change in our institutions. While many innovative non-profits and private sector organizations are pioneering change from without, many people fail to emphasize the importance of young people entering government, where the most vital institutional change is needed.

Millennials—inclined towards collaboration, entrepreneurship, and intrapreneurship—are best poised to create global systemic change. But how? It begins by recognizing that there is a global need for organizations to actively foster the next generation of leaders and to equip young people with the skills they will need to master the complexity of today’s challenges and deliver systemic change. Such organizations will also need to foster a safe environment for risk taking and experimentation. Dr. Judith Rodin, a renowned impact investor, has suggested that there are two vital characteristics of future leadership: courage to take risks and vision to see things in new ways. At Harvard, she spoke about how “leadership drives innovation, and innovation drives leadership.” 

In a small group discussion on the “foreign policy leader of the future” I recently facilitated, participants concluded that two of the greatest skills a future leader needs are the knowledge of their own strengths and their ability to bring people together. Generalists need to excel at coalition building. Specialists need to recognize how they can best contribute their knowledge and skills organization- and system-wide. Our world needs collaborative and networked generalists and specialists working together to deliver systemic change.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the human dimension. In a world where our relationships often are increasingly virtual and personal interactions more fleeting, empathy is powerful. Future leaders will need to help and support each other, advocating for one another and innovation. One panelist at Harvard made the provocative suggestion that Steve Jobs wasn't a great innovator, but he was a great advocate who could see the potential in an idea and then powerfully advocated for those innovations to become game-changing realities. Young leaders need to advocate for themselves and their ideas, and for others around them fighting for real change.

And in a chaotic, fast-moving world where decisions are made and implemented at a fierce velocity, values-based leadership is more important than ever.  David Blood, former CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and co-founder of a sustainable investment firm, urges Millennials, no matter what organization they work for or the position they hold: “Don’t check your values at the door.” 

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