Jane Nelson and Beth Jenkins: Lessons in System Leadership from the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture Initiative

By Jane Nelson, Director, Harvard Kennedy School Corporate Responsibility Initiative, and Beth Jenkins, Insights Director, Business Fights Poverty and Senior Fellow, CR Initiative.  Jane Nelson and Beth Jenkins are Co-Authors of a new report: "Tackling Global Challenges: Lessons in System Leadership from the World Economic Forum's New Vision for Agriculture".

A special form of leadership, system leadership, is needed to tackle global challenges like food security, climate change, job creation, and gender parity.

These challenges are complex and systemic, rooted in the actions and interactions of diverse yet interconnected, interdependent stakeholders. Leaders in business, government, and civil society increasingly recognize that they cannot be addressed in a top-down, pre-planned, linear fashion and that point solutions don’t work. Instead, the solutions require stakeholders to change the way they operate at the global, national, and local levels. Over time, they must develop new technologies, products, services, business models, public service delivery models, policy and regulatory innovations, voluntary standards, and cultural norms and behaviors that together deliver new results. System leadership can help align the efforts of diverse stakeholders in order to accelerate this process, and ensure that it delivers more sustainable, inclusive business growth and human development.

Individuals, institutions, and interactive structures all have system leadership roles to play.

Individual leaders and institutions across business, government, and civil society must pursue their interests in ways that benefit the broader systems in which they operate, recognizing that in the long term, the two are inextricably linked. And innovative interactive structures—called backbone organizations, multi-stakeholder initiatives, cross-sector coalitions, or partnership platforms—must mobilize, support, align, and coordinate the efforts of individuals and institutions system-wide.

System leadership works by cultivating a shared vision for change, empowering widespread innovation and action, and enabling mutual accountability.

A shared vision galvanizes diverse stakeholders and helps to ensure that their efforts align, complement, and build on one another, producing better results faster than they could otherwise have done. While not all stakeholders will be early movers, a critical mass of individual, institutional, and interactive system leaders must innovate and act in order to “tip” the system and influence the rest. And mutual accountability is both a powerful incentive and a critical enabler. In a system, where stakeholders are interdependent, they will only sustain the investment of time, effort, and resources needed to play their parts if the others do, too.

Country ownership and action are essential for on the ground impact and change.

There is growing recognition that strong individual and institutional system leadership, supported by strong interactive structures, are especially important at the country level. The need spans business, government, and civil society—but efforts to drive systemic change cannot be sustained or scaled without proactive leadership from government leaders and relevant ministries, or without clear alignment between national development priorities, public policies and market-based approaches. Country-led, country-based interactive structures that bring stakeholders together across sectors with the explicit purpose of fostering communication and collaboration and coordinating their activities can help to achieve the necessary alignment.

The World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture (NVA) initiative is one example of system leadership in practice, and a rich source of insight for those seeking to exercise it.

The NVA aims to transform agricultural systems to improve food security, environmental sustainability, and economic opportunity. It is at a relatively early stage in what will be a long-term process of mobilizing the wide range of actors needed to drive systemic change. Nevertheless, it demonstrates how individual, institutional, and interactive system leadership can come together to create momentum for such change. In particular, the NVA demonstrates the potential of establishing interactive structures at the country level to coordinate the efforts of diverse stakeholders across sectors and value chains.

A new report by the CSR Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School seeks to distill the lessons—and strategic questions—from the New Vision for Agriculture experience to date for system leaders in agriculture, food security, and beyond. As the report describes and illustrates, these include:

In a blog just posted on the Harvard Business Review website, the heads of the CSR Initiative, the New Vision for Agriculture, and Rabobank, a NVA partner, contend that “orchestrating this kind of collective effort is possible.” At the same time, they concede that it “requires a new scale of leadership.”

To realize ambitious commitments like the Sustainable Development Goals, we will need more than ever before to combine domain expertise and technical skills with the ability to think and act systemically. Companies, governments and civil society organizations need to develop and reward many more individuals with this still relatively rare combination of mindsets and skill sets. These institutions must adapt their internal organizational structures, processes and delivery models to be more effective at working in partnership and through broader networks. And they must make long-term investments in the interactive structures that serve to strengthen communication, coordination and collaboration among them.

None of this is easy. It requires a deliberate commitment of time, talent and financial resources. Yet it creates enormous opportunity for impact, developing individual leaders, organizations, and systems that are fit-for-purpose in an increasingly complex and uncertain future.

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