13 DECEMBER 2018 / Redefining Leadership with the Tällberg Foundation

As a term, leadership is often used, but seldom meaningfully defined. As a quality, it is much sought-after but hard to identify.

For the Tällberg Foundation, simply defining leadership is not sufficient. The Foundation seeks to redefine what the concept could and should mean in the 21st century. As this new definition develops, simply identifying leaders who fit it is not a sufficient next step for the Foundation either.

Regardless of the particulars of a definition used, leadership often tends to be conceptualized as existing within an established framework of knowledge, governance, or management. The associated credentials and structural markers provide a shortcut in the otherwise murky process of identifying leaders. Seeking leaders may mean seeking “experts” in a given area, as attested by depth of familiarity or credentials. It may mean looking to the top of an organization or group. In any case, the standard view of leaders frames their leadership in terms of a specific, defined context.

While experts are essential and leaders identified in this way may be effective and visionary, the shortcomings of this standard model are clear. In a time characterized by breakdown of traditional structures, greater global mobility and exchange than ever, and information networks that obscure expert consensus, new sorts of leaders are needed and new ways of identifying them must be found.

The Eliasson Global Leadership Prize 
“It’s a catalytic power.”

The Tällberg Foundation is pushing toward a conception of leadership based instead on the value of ideas. Rather than gaining backward-facing worth from the context of an organization, a power structure, or a credential, ideas can be assessed on the forward-looking merit of the benefits they would yield if put into action. Identifying leaders based on their ideas allows for a broader conception of what leadership means, better allowing for leaders who work beyond, between, or across disciplines. Through the annual Eliasson Global Leadership Prize, supported by SNF, Tällberg identifies and lifts up outstanding leaders whose work is rooted in optimism and universal values.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, one winner of the 2018 Eliasson Prize, is the archetype of a leader whose ideas transport her between disciplines and fields of action. A two-time Academy Award winner, Obaid-Chinoy began her filmmaking career in Pakistan, but her work has since taken her around the world. Last year, she was the first artist to become co-chair of the World Economic Forum. In 2016, following her direction of a documentary about a girl who survives an honor killing attempt, Obaid-Chinoy met with the Prime Minister of Pakistan to discuss reforms to laws related to such crimes. More recently, she teamed up with NBA star LeBron James to profile the highly profitable industry of unpaid college student athletes.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy — Filmmaker
“It is important to have difficult conversations."

Her expertise in storytelling is a lens that can focus on any subject to yield productive new perspectives and ideas. Through film, those ideas can be widely shared. Obaid-Chinoy uses this platform to give voice to those who are unable to speak for themselves. Rather than concentrating power in a person, ideas-based leadership can have the effect of diffusing it more widely.

Such is the case also for Columbia neuroscientist Rafael Yuste, another 2018 winner. Yuste is one of the originators of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, an ambitious public-private partnership including neuroscientists at a range of universities that aims to develop technologies to improve our understanding of brain function and disorders. The initiative is now being carried out by researchers at over a dozen different institutions. Ideas-based leadership can be decentralized, spanning organizations.

Rafael Yuste — Neuroscientist
“My dream is to change the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

 

What’s more, Yuste builds on his expert knowledge to pursue his ideas across disciplinary boundaries. His work reaches beyond the bounds of traditional neuroscience research to consider the ethical dimensions of rapidly advancing technology related to the human brain. Following good ideas where they lead, regardless of disciplinary precedent, is in the spirit of Tällberg’s view of leadership.

Following a good idea beyond the bounds of their supposed areas of expertise led an imam, a cardinal, and a pastor to collaborate to address civic strife founded on misguided religious fervor. Imam Omar Kobine, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, and Pastor Guérékoyame-Gbangou, united by the idea that religious devotion should not be used as a basis for perpetuating deadly civic divides formed the Plateforme des Confessions Religieuses de Centrafrique. Each religious leader, individually, held a special and important perspective. However, in conversation with each other, these perspectives yield results far greater than the sum of the parts.

Plateforme des Confessions Religieuses de Centrafrique — Cardinal, Pastor, and Imam
“When we work together we are stronger.”

Putting the ideas of leaders in conversation with one another is essential. Putting leaders and their ideas into conversation with each other follows naturally from the conclusion that new problems facing the world will require new ways of thinking and new paradigms of action. Ideas are tested and tempered through engaged discussion. In open conversation with other leaders who think across disciplinary and organizational boundaries, the potential impact of an idea on the world and its merits can be hashed out. As Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy says, “It is important to have difficult conversations.”

Tällberg seeks to build global networks that can produce creative solutions to pressing challenges. Thinking about leadership in terms of action-oriented ideas means bringing together individuals who are willing to transcend traditional modes of thinking and disciplinary boundaries, then listening where the conversation takes them. At a conference celebrating the prizewinners in Mexico City this fall, Tällberg did just that.

At the same time that the winners of the 2018 Eliasson prize are celebrated, it is also worth celebrating the more than 800 nominees in 130-odd countries who did not receive the prize. Each of those 800 had optimistic ideas based on universal values for improving the world that were worthy of nomination. And in a world in which leadership is defined by the potential of ideas rather than a credential or a position in a structure, that’s 800 leaders pushing for a better future.