4 Critical Leadership Issues for 2020 and Beyond

What are the most pressing global problems that leaders need to address?

Posted Nov 15, 2019

As a scholar who has studied leadership for decades, I sometimes get lost in studying the leadership process and have to step back and ask myself the question, “Leadership for what? What is the purpose of leadership, and what are the most important issues that today’s leaders need to address?”

Last month, I attended the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association in Ottawa, Canada, asking these questions and hoping to find answers, and here is what I came away with.

1. Mitigating Climate Change

This nearly-overwhelming leadership challenge is crucial for the survival of the human species. For leaders to address this impending catastrophe, requires multiple steps.

a. First, acknowledge the problem and the cause (especially the contribution of human activities/technology). Fortunately, most of the world is aware of the problem, but there is a desperate need for immediate action.

b. Second, leaders need to make addressing climate change a priority and muster the resources necessary to make a difference.

c. Third, collaboration and commitment are needed—all people, from all nations, working together. We need to realize that we have a shared commitment to combatting global warming and saving the planet. One ILA speaker, indigenous Canadian senator Anike Niganizi Murray Sinclair, reminded us that indigenous North Americans made preserving the environment “for the next seven generations” a priority.

2. Combatting Divisiveness

In recent years, there has been a surge in issues that divide people. We give in all too easily to the psychological phenomenon of in-group, out-group bias. Whether it is because we are from different nations, races, socioeconomic levels—just about any difference is exploited to fuel “us vs. them” animosity and hatred.

And it’s not just at the national or societal level. It even happens in our own families when we are warned not to talk politics at the Thanksgiving table. What do leaders need to do?

a. Be inclusive. Leaders need to consider all of the constituents that they lead, be responsive to their concerns, and bring them together.

I’ll quote former U.S. President Barack Obama: “I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together: black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance under the same proud flag to this big, bold country that we love. That's what I see. That's the America I know!”

b. Recognize shared problems, values, and concerns. Leaders need to think beyond their own borders and bring nations together to solve global problems. It is self-centeredness that is at the heart of divisiveness, and we need to recognize that only through global collaboration will we solve the Earth’s most pressing problems.

3. Increasing Education

Being that I live in a higher education “bubble,” I had to be convinced by speakers at the conference and colleagues that a great deal of the problems that exist in the world today are caused by a lack of education. And I’m not just talking about formal schooling, but educating our children in their very earliest years—teaching them about civility, virtue, and our common humanity.

It is going to take an educated population to help produce the leaders and the citizens who will be able to solve the world’s most dire problems. What should leaders do?

a. Make education accessible for all. Education helps create an enlightened population who understand our shared problems and will be equipped to help find solutions. Education allows upward mobility through the creation of jobs and technological advancements that can make life better for all humans.

b. Make education a priority. This means not only improving schools and the quality of education from elementary school onward, but investing in pre-school education, educating parents to be better at child-rearing, and educating about the importance of individual freedom and civil rights.

4. Protecting Vulnerable People

As long as a large portion of the human population lives in poverty, are denied educational opportunities, adequate healthcare, and a sense of security (think about the epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S.), we can never solve any of the other problems that humans face. We can’t ask people who are worried about their next meal and basic survival to join us in problem-solving.

a. Leaders need to address poverty and homelessness directly. The wealth distribution gap is widening, and we need a more fair system that allows every individual to have a decent standard of living.

b. Solving global conflicts should be a priority. Regional wars and conflicts not only create a refugee crisis; they destroy local economies and communities.

I recognize that many readers will say, “Tell us something we don’t already know,” but that is the conundrum. Leaders know what needs to be done, but they lack the courage to take on these pressing issues. What was the theme of the conference that I attended? “Leadership: Courage Required.”