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How Today's Leaders See Tomorrow's Challenges

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CNBC.com

The World Business Forum that took place in Radio City Music Hall this week was definitely the place to be to pick up advice on leadership, and how you and your company can be best positioned for what's in store through the end of the current crisis we're in, and on into recovery.

The two-day event featured a wide array of leaders from the worlds of business, politics and academia: President Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker, and he was amply supported by a cast that included the likes of T. Boone Pickens, Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, management guru Gary Hamel, economist Jeffrey Sachs (who just happens to advise President Obama), and many more. (A full list is available here)

Despite the wide range of backgrounds and specialties of each of the speakers, several key themes emerged over the course of the two days that are likely to affect how business is conducted in the coming years. Of those, the top three—at least to this observer—were as follows:

  1. The need for greater transparency
  2. The need to realize our interconnectedness with the rest of the world—and not only on economic issues
  3. Energy: sustainability and independence

Likely, none of those will come as a surprise to anyone who's spent any time reading about business recently, much less leading one, but as speaker Patrick Lencioni pointed out on day one of the event, there's no harm in over-communicating, especially where key challenges to our way of life are involved.

Transparency

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Of the three issues listed above, it may seem odd that greater transparency is listed first, but there's good reason for that. Of all the leaders who addressed the need for transparency, none nailed the scope of the challenge quite as well as PricewaterhouseCoopers Chairman Dennis Nally. In his eyes, economic recovery is linked to the issue of trust: people, companies and governments all need to be able to trust each other. Without that, says Nally, everyone remains fearful, and normal economic activity and growth can't resume. His solution: greater transparency, especially in terms of adherence to financial reporting standards. Everything else—global recovery, the ability to invest in alternative energies, job growth—therefore springs from the issue of transparency.

Interconnectedness

The question of interconnectedness is another that was addressed by many speakers but nailed by one: President Bill Clinton. Outlining a scenario where unsold condos in Florida and the South of France had a knock-on effect that could be realized as far away as a manufacturing facility in Vietnam (no home sales meaning no income for discretionary spending on imported manufactured goods), he declared that "divorce is not an option" from the rest of the global economy. Thus, as we seek to recover and get stronger, it's important to realize that we're all in this together; the days where American prosperity led to prosperity around the world are fading. Now, American prosperity depends on relationships—and prosperity—in other countries.

The energy question

The one area where all participants were in agreement is that energy is going to be one of the main drivers of growth in coming years. The reasons are simple: oil is finite and becoming ever more expensive; carbon reduction is a necessary goal; national security depends on ending or greatly reducing reliance on foreign energy sources. Thus, alternative sources are the way forward. T. Boone Pickens used his platform at the Forum to reaffirm his pledge that he will deliver an energy plan for America, focused on natural gas—"the only natural resource in America that will move an 18 wheeler."

All told, perhaps the most striking analysis of the challenges facing us—and the nature of the changes that may have to come—was offered by Jeffrey Sachs, who opined that “markets can’t solve the problems.” The reason? “These are problems that require markets and public policy working hand in hand.” Drawing together all of the themes touched on so far, he commented that “we need a new approach to the planet”—one where “global cooperation lies at the center” of everything we do, and where we “put people first rather than the powerful interests.”

Whether or not you agree with Sachs' take on the road to a solution, the challenges are pretty much there for all to see. While they represent a difficult road ahead, there are also sure to be opportunities in each of them. Staying nimble enough to benefit from those—and to negotiate the changes we're sure to see—is going to be the key to surviving in business in the coming years.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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