World Economic Forum: 21st Century Leadership

May 2014, by So-Young Kang

My understanding of the World Economic Forum (WEF) is that it is a network of leaders across various disciplines in business, government, education and society. It’s about coming together to have a dialogue about the major issues facing the world today, so that we can form the connections and networks to be able to address them. WEF is not a decision-making forum, but rather, a forum to bring people together. It was quite a privilege and an honor to be part of it this year, which I attended due to being nominated to be a Young Global Leader – one of 200 or so leaders in the world across different disciplines who are actually making a difference or trying to make a difference in the world. We were invited to WEF in East Asia to talk about what our contributions could be and what issues we want to solve.


I think that especially in East Asia, we are so used to talking about results, outcomes, and performance. We are very fixated on that, in some ways, at the expense of all other things. What was pleasantly surprising to me was to hear some world leaders, such as President Yudhoyono of Indonesia, talk about what it means to be ‘human’ and how “being human is going to be at the core of leadership in the 21st century.”

This is a very different kind of thinking—it’s much more than a limited poverty mindset or a competitive mindset of “mine vs. yours”—it is actually about, “How can we create a bigger ‘we’ and a bigger world?” I am quite excited about the opportunities as we shift mindsets beyond functional things, into more meaningful and purpose-driven things.

I think that one of the biggest crises facing our region today is actually the loss of soul and identity, which is at the root of many of the problems we face. So I feel that we need a new approach and a new way of actually re-instilling purpose and values, which is at the heart of being human and of what it means to transform. As we start to address those core root issues around purpose and identity, we will have the opportunity to start transforming the way people and leaders think, the way they lead their companies, and how they operate their companies, societies, and nations. That is what I am most passionate about and how I see the linkage of what it means to be human, to transformation.

This all matters because I think that we all want to live in a more joyful and beautiful world. Many of us are evolving along Maslow’s hierarchy, in terms of the functional needs being met, and we are seeking self-actualization or a higher level of need, which is around finding meaning and purpose. For example, many in Gen Y care less about pay and work-life balance. They are looking for meaningful work that will transform the world to make it a better place. Many of us are looking for how we can make that difference.

For me, it’s really about how we can make a difference in individual leaders, organizations, nations, governments, and companies, and this is what drives me at the end of the day. I see a shift happening so I am quite excited about that because that is meaningful. At the core, I believe all of us are actually seeking meaning and purpose, and that is what transformation starts with.