People-centered leadership: a solution in turbulent times

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the rise of economic, political and social upheaval requires business leaders to rethink their leadership approach. A recent white paper by the World Economic Forum makes the case for a people-centered leadership model.

In advance of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) on January 22, 2019, the WEF released a white paper that explores the complexities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Entitled “Leading through the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Putting People at the Centre” (the WEF paper). The paper proposes a solution: a leadership mindset that puts people first.

The need for people-centric leadership

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (marked by technological advances such as: artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, and quantum computing) is disrupting long-standing business models. Digital innovation in every aspect of business and the consequent demand for customised products are creating systemic shifts in organisations. The impact of emerging technologies alongside rising protectionism, income inequality and environmental constraints have created an unprecedented situation that calls for organisations to lead differently. The WEF paper (“Leading through the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Putting People at the Centre”) makes the case for a type of leadership mindset that keeps people at the centre—because ultimately people will be the differentiators for organisations as key enablers of technology. To be a people-centric organisation means not only considering the impact on employees, but also the impact to their families and communities – not just shareholder and market expectations.

This focus on people is consistent with the theme of WEF Founder and Chairman Klaus Schwab’s latest book Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution (2018). One of the main challenges is to ensure “that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is human-led and human-centered. Human values must be respected in themselves, rather than weighted only in financial terms.”


The WEF paper aimed to identify critical leadership behaviours and mindsets to navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


The Forum took a field-based approach (observations, interviews and conversations) to explore insights from the experiences of WEF constituents and partners along with the advice of external leadership experts to examine a new leadership paradigm.


The WEF paper (“Leading through the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Putting People at the Centre”) proposes six key behaviours and mindsets that are relevant for leaders to move toward a sustainable, stable and successful future.

Key People-Centric Leadership Behaviours:

1. Inspire with empathy and vision: Dealing with complex and unprecedented situations where both the problem and solution are unclear requires creating a vision. A vision that is rooted in empathy and a genuine connection with people motivates them to believe and achieve the vision.

2. Innovate with purpose: Rapid technological advances and a fast-changing business landscape requires a culture of experimentation that tolerates failure and links innovation to a new purpose.

3. Advocate empathy, humanity, trust and transparency: Despite the flood of new technology, humans will play an important role as enablers of technology. The key differentiator for organisational success will be people-centered leadership that recognises individual contributions and aspirations.

This thinking that humans, not machines, are central to an organisation’s success is reflected in the remarks of the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who frequently writes about technology and its transformative impact, “All the things that are important today are the things you cannot download. It’s all the things you have to upload the old-fashioned way: one human being to another.”

4. Orchestrate for agility and growth: Leaders need to have the courage to radically rethink and change legacy businesses. This drive for sustainable transformation creates constant tension between innovation and existing revenue streams, because it is these existing revenue streams that drive growth and make innovation possible.

5. Collaborate across the ecosystem: Partnering with start-ups, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), large corporations, academia, labour unions and policy-makers—helps challenge established ways of working and co-create solutions. No business or nation will be able to deal with the challenges ahead alone.

6. Embrace social responsibility: A focus on sustainable approach to success and social responsibility can address negative and unexpected consequences, such as the rising inequality between and within economies and the displacement of low-skilled workers. Values-based, human leadership is no longer idealism; it is the need of the hour.

Implications for Business Leaders

The WEF paper (“Leading through the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Putting People at the Centre”) has important lessons for leaders across industries and geographies. In what can seem almost counter-intuitive, the paper suggests that leaders looking to unlock the potential of technology need to adopt a human-centric mindset. Klaus Schwab recommends to “look beyond technologies as either simple tools or inevitable forces, by reflecting and amplifying human values as we make decisions around investment, design, adoption and reinvention.”

A change in mindset and a different set of behaviours will be key to dealing with the complexities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution Implications identified include:

  • Being empathetic and building an authentic connect with employees and clients
  • Encouraging diversity of thinking and experimentation
  • Tapping into people’s strengths and aspirations and enabling them to innovate with purpose
  • Partnering with small and big businesses, governments, educational institutions, and social organisations
  • Nurturing an approach toward growth that considers sustainability

These behaviours and mindsets will be key to unleashing human potential, helping organisations maximise the value generated by technology and coping with a rapidly changing global economy.

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