The New Leadership Context

The relationship between business and society is being completely reassessed, especially by younger generations. We saw the acceleration of this through Covid-19, where in an emergency landscape, businesses were expected to show support to people in more critical ways (eg. drinks companies pivoting at speed to produce hand sanitiser). This is part of a broader shift - there’s rising expectations of business to ‘do more than make a profit- to prove its worth to broader communities and to society. Why? From the climate to the economy, young generations are being forced to question the systems that they’ve grown up in and taken for granted. From our food systems to our financial systems - everything is being questioned.

In this context, there’s new signals for good leadership emerging.


Good Leadership from the perspective of today’s youth needs to embrace uncertainty in a visionary way. It is not only about being able to sit with big disruptive questions (EG: around the true cost of our work and how we measure success in new ways), but also about activating optimism. Asking the question: how can the future be better?

Modern leaders must activate optimism to step up and take responsibility for creating a better future, and to create an environment that encourages the people around you to take great imaginative leaps. Leadership required today cannot bend to doomism, but must lend itself toward impatient optimism.

Inspiration / Example: What if the future was worth looking forward to? Check out the GoodLife2030 project by Purpose Disruptors. This is also a great short film by The Intercept with Naomi Klien ‘A Message From The Future.’


Good leadership is also creating ‘signalling’ actions that inspire trendsetting new behaviours in the world in which you operate. A good new signal means being able to envisage the future of the world as a completely new place if others start to follow suit. In ‘signalling’ actions, authenticity matters: It’s as important not to present as a leader who stands for something; without having the action or intent to back it up (ie. not projecting empty signals).

Inspiration / Example: We saw a great example of signal leadership recently from Yvon Chounaird of Patagonia who made ‘earth’ the company’s only shareholder. Another example is Faith In Nature who placed a ‘Nature Director’ on its Board to give nature a voice in its business strategy. Heineken Ireland also exemplified signal leadership recently through a music festival lens - read more about our work on the Greener Bar here.


To create ‘leaderful’ structures that are distributed, embedded in democratic processes rather than hierarchical power structures is hugely aspirational to younger generations. This is about creating the right environments for people to be able to be empowered, excel and collaborate toward impact-oriented goals for sustainable business and societal transformation.

"...if we're seeking to make transformational change at a systems level it can't just be 'what' we're asking for that is transformational. It has to be the how in what we are doing that has to shift." - Katie Eder, 19, Future Coalition.

Inspiration / Example: Innocent drinks empowers its staff to add a sustainability role to their job description in an attempt to create a workforce of “Fruit Towers heroes”. Staff can choose to be an ‘agitator’, ‘activator’, ‘ambassador’ or ‘protector’. Read more about the programme here.

The Great Oven is a project that builds giant community ovens in conflict zones and refugee camps. It feeds the many by empowering communities (of ex fighters, trafficked women, refugees and stateless youth) to feed themselves. Follow its journey here.


Democratic or participative leadership is about having multiple people involved in decision making processes. It is about shared voices and shared importance. We see trends rising toward this type of leadership with younger generations and with the growing support for unions - 71% of Americans approve of unions in 2022, according to new survey data from Gallup. The last time union approval was that high was in 1965 (source). Democratic leadership focuses on the importance of safe spaces and emotionally intelligent traits in leaders: “In UK reviews with strong leadership, the most frequent co-occuring words included friendly, support/supportive, flexible, nice, and approachable.” Glassdoor UK.

Inspiration / Example: We’re currently working with Airfield Estate, Dublin’s Urban farm to establish a Youth Board to support its mission to make Dublin a world-leading sustainable food city. Also, in working with many of our clients to lead various Transformation projects (EG: transformation on business culture around areas such as youth relevance; digital media; citizen-brand work and purposeful action) with reverse-mentoring; senior leaders and younger colleagues upskill and reskill together.


The ‘How’ Is As Important As The ‘What’: How we activate and invite leadership in our day to day work has a direct impact on the outcomes. Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman puts it nicely through the lens of ‘energy’: Leadership is not just about giving's unleashing other people's energy.

Inner Work for Outer Action: Examining your own principles and understanding will lead to better work with others. As the famous line by Rumi goes - ​​“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today, I am wise so I am changing myself.”

Learn from Young Leaders:

1: Consider how reverse-mentoring or youth listening can bring generational gaps in your team or organisation to drive better leadership/decisions/action.

2: Tune into GOAL NextGen X Change -an Instagram Live panel discussion, an inclusive and welcoming space, where young leaders will be sharing their experiences on how they are tackling global justice issues. Head over and follow @GOALNextGen and tune in live Monday 17th October at 6.30PM IST.