When you’re introduced as a ‘surprise’ from Professor Schwab to Archbishop Tutu in front of 2,000 of world’s foremost leaders, you know the bar has been set high. And that’s exactly where seventy Global Shapers from around the world found ourselves as Davos 2012 began. Throughout the Opening Plenary, and the entire Annual Meeting, the discussion continued to return to youth and the important role of Global Shapers – the Forum’s newest community of under 30 leaders. Angela Merkel stressed the importance of youth employment and restoring youth confidence in the political and economic systems of the world. At a dinner session – Unconventional Leadership – every single speaker emphasized youth leaders as a key to understanding Unconventional Leadership. In Vineet Nayar’s words, young people are “born with it”. But as we age, we move from a journey of ‘why not’ to a journey of ‘no’. We shed our willingness to take risks, follow our gut, and challenge traditional structures. The Annual Meeting was covered with stories of young people shaping change and exercising bold and innovative models of leadership, from Tahir Square to Wall Street to Soweto.

While all this discussion of young leadership is exciting, it comes with a set of challenges, both for us and the older generation who are so willing to laud our praises and harp on our potential. For young people, we must live up to the high expectations set for us. We must resist the threat of losing that willingness to challenge traditional models as we age and continue to practice transformative leadership. We must also be willing to work with, not only against, the older generation. We must recognize that both generations have something unique we bring to society, in perspectives, resources, and networks. The strongest movements will be those where young and old are equal stakeholders in and contributors to transformation.

For the older generation, they must truly embrace young people taking on roles of leadership, even when they directly challenge the structures and systems that they have lived in so comfortably throughout the years. It’s easy for the American businessman to applaud the young man who leads the Chilean student movement. It’s easy for a European politician to celebrate Egypt’s youth uprisings. But, we need our older leadership to be comfortable with young people even when they themselves are challenged directly.Youth must not be looked at as an exciting phase of spirited movements but an important stakeholder across sectors, nations, and ideologies. We need to embrace young leaders as a key player in improving the state of the world. We’ve got the right people having the conversation — the Forum, the Shapers, and powerful political, business, social, and cultural leaders — now we must transform those discussions into action that embrace transformative new models of leadership and progress.

The 2012 Annual Meeting was bookended with speakers who shared optimism for the future of the world — at the beginning was Archbishop Tutu and at the closing were four Global Shapers Niel Bowerman, Manju George, Rapelang Rabana, and Tyler Spencer. They didn’t express a naive belief that ‘all is well’, but an thoughtful optimism that, if we stick to values, remain authentic, bring the right stakeholders to the table, and challenge each-other and the traditional models we’ve settled into, transformation is indeed possible.

Photo Credit: Olena Tregub