Feb 10, 2022

Can A Generation of Virtuous Leaders Change the World?

The Global Leadership Challenge seeks to promote virtuous leadership approaches in the next generation This is part of a series of articles examining how a human flourishing mindset can support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. See below for related series content.

By Benjamin Reeves

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are intended to drive global action around humanity’s most urgent—and intractable—challenges, ranging from poverty to climate change to a lack of access to quality education and healthcare. Taking on such problems requires tremendous resources and the ability to galvanize action across populations. It requires, in other words, leadership. “When we talk about the SDGs, often we focus on only macro-level players,” says Anjali Sarker, program manager of the Oxford Character Project. “We talk about politicians, national leaders and really big international institutions, but forget about the important role youth can play on the ground.”

While large, nation-spanning problems are typically thought of as the domain of national governments and international bodies, in practice progress is made by individual people working within networks and leveraging their connections, creativity and inspiration to alter the world around them and innovate new solutions to age-old problems. The leadership style and character qualities of those individuals—and their feeling of empowerment to take on big problems—consequently has a tremendous impact on society’s ability to make progress on the sorts of issues highlighted by the SDGs.

While incumbent leadership—heads of state, directors of major NGOs and executives at major businesses—certainly have a role to play in the immediate term, it is the next generation of leaders, those individuals just beginning to exercise their abilities, that have the greatest ability to grow, change and maximize their future impact on the world. Current leadership, although it recognizes the problems outlined in the SDGs, often fails to act on those goals or promote innovative solutions in a way that recognizes the stake that future generations have in the outcome. Political and industry leaders often fail to account for the simple fact that the world’s young will inherit the long-term consequences of inaction. Yet thanks to the inexorable march of time, the young are also the next generation of local, national and world leaders, executives, innovators and scientists. Interventions now can shape how they will tackle the world’s problems when it is their turn to make decisions.

Traditional, top-down, hierarchical and authoritarian styles of leadership—par for the course of most of human history—risk recreating in the future the same sorts of systems and problems that already exist today. Compounding matters, although academic inquiry and research has yielded a wealth of knowledge, it often fails to contribute to the shaping of policy and social interventions. Sarker notes that academia has concentrated expertise “at the top of the ivory tower,” which is often not accessible by the world’s youth.

Yet if young and emerging leaders can be guided in another direction, human flourishing can potentially progress along a different track than it has in the past. While this new style of leadership is referred to in various ways—virtuous leadership, servant-leadership, or resonant leadership—it amounts to a character-based approach which emphasizes traits such as empathy, active listening, vulnerability and collaboration. It is a leadership style that is not industry or sector specific, but it keeps people, their needs and their innate human desires, passions and strengths at its core.

This all sounds well and good, of course, but are these just nice ideas? Or can these leadership and character traits be taught or enhanced?

The Global Leadership Challenge (GLC), organized by the University of Oxford and St. Gallen Symposium with backing from Templeton World Charity Foundation and the Lemann Foundation, is experimenting with just that. In December 2021, the GLC convened for the first time, bringing together 100 participants from 32 countries for a week-long engagement. The participants were divided into interdisciplinary teams, each focused on a different SDG. The individuals on the teams, by-and-large, were masters and doctoral level students and were not subject matter or policy experts on the SDG problem areas they were assigned to.

The Challenge was structured around creating innovative approaches to four SDGs (health, education, gender equality and climate change), but the primary goal was to develop the leadership capacities of the participants, rather than seeking to generate a silver bullet to solve climate change or global poverty, for instance. “Rather than making it just an inspirational speech from the podium, you really get to interact with the people who are in the field and actively pushing for change and that inspire you,” Sarker says. Instead of measuring the success of young leaders by their problem-solving skills or their application of knowledge, success under this model is determined by collaboration with peers, experts and potential role models and how the participants subsequently think about themselves and behave as emerging leaders after the experience.

The long-term success of the Challenge will take time to reveal itself, and the leadership abilities and traits of the participants remain nascent. Yet the experiences of the participants already demonstrate the conceptual potential of the approach. “It really reinforced my view of leadership from a place of purpose, from a place of mindfulness and conscientiousness,” says Chrissie Kayode, a master’s student in strategic design and management at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York.

Kayode, who describes her approach as “resonant leadership,” is focused on issues around gender equality and grounds much of her thinking on the subject in her experiences growing up in Nigeria and seeing how poverty and a lack of opportunities negatively affected many women and girls in her community. “I am a deep thinker, and what that means is that I want to get at the issue and solve it from its roots. I don’t care much for the symptoms,” she says.

For Ankit Anand, who earned a master’s in physics at ETH Zurich in 2019 and is the vice president of software engineering at a health-tech startup, the Challenge represented a unique opportunity to connect with peers from around the world in an interdisciplinary setting. The chance to connect with people from a variety of backgrounds was particularly important for Anand, who began his career as a teacher in his native India before working for tech startups and pursuing his studies of physics and collaborating with local art communities in Zurich.

Anand’s current startup, Sleepiz, is developing cloud-connected, continually monitored hospital beds for use in Indian hospitals that lack robust ICU facilities. He’s found himself drawn to companies that serve a social purpose and says that “it’s something which makes you feel that you are doing something which is not just work. That helps me keep motivated.”

The interdisciplinary approach of the GLC radically reshaped how some participants thought about their academic achievements and specialization. Ruby-Anne Birin, a doctoral student in archeology at the University of Oxford whose research focuses on an alternative to radiocarbon dating, was assigned to the Challenge group working on quality education. Birin’s companions in the group included a journalist from Cameroon, an engineering student from Cambridge interested in climate change and a specialist in mental health. “I am really excited about education, but they didn’t actually have that interest,” Birin, who is from South Africa says. “So the first task was convincing them that it was really cool.”

In working with the team, Birin says she looked for ways to apply their interests to problems in education. “What we settled on was how do we communicate and engage with climate science and who are the people being affected by it? And what education they have access to? Since the people who are often most affected by climate change aren’t those in positions to have access to education, how do we get that information to them?”

Because of their diverse interests and unique educational backgrounds, Birin’s team settled on an approach that encompassed aspects of multiple SDGs, and the process helped Birin analyze how she could be a leader by fostering collaboration and communication across disciplines. She noted that the access to role models from academic backgrounds who were working on real world problems was particularly impactful. “For me, one of the things was taking what we had heard and then implementing it and changing it and trying to adjust my own leadership style within the process,” Birin recalls.

Over the course of the Challenge, Birin experimented with different approaches to collaborating and delegating within the group. “We each had our strengths,” she explains, “but we also had to allow other people to grow. So, I worked a lot on the policy of the project and coming up with ideas—which is what I love—and then when it came to presenting, which is normally what I do, I took a step back and said ‘let someone else do the hard work of trying to convince the world that what we have developed is valuable and worth investing in.’”

The Challenge fundamentally altered how Birin sees her potential in the world as an academic and her approach to solving problems. “It really showed me the strength of a project if you sometimes just let go a little bit and work as a collaborative group and work in a more systematic and symbiotic manner,” she recalls. Perhaps most importantly, it provided her with insight on how academics can work hand-in-hand with policymakers, using an approach of “optimism and practicality,” to try and solve humanity’s most significant problems.

While gatherings like the Global Leadership Challenge won’t change the world by themselves, the experiences of the participants speak to a very real search for new methods of leadership and a desire to apply theoretical knowledge to the concrete problems of the world. More than anything, their experiences reveal that the world’s emerging leaders have an appetite for responsibility, collaboration and—perhaps most importantly—thinking and acting outside of traditional academic and policy silos. In other words, they believe that character-based leadership across intellectual boundaries can yield incredible results.


Benjamin Reeves is an award-winning journalist, screenwriter and media consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he was formerly senior special projects editor at Worth magazine and a staff writer at Columbia Business School. Follow him @bpreeves and learn more at