Leadership by Geoff Colvin

After Davos: Making the case for global optimism

January 31, 2012: 2:23 PM ET

If the World Economic Forum wants to continue contributing answers to the challenges facing the world and not just raising questions, it should pay closer attention to what the optimists in the room are saying.

By Vineet Nayar, guest contributor

FORTUNE -- Last week, I wrote about the need to include divergent and contrarian views in the conversations taking place at the World Economic Forum annual meeting. As I sit back and reflect on my five days at Davos, I feel that we need to extend the circle further -- to include some "protagonists of hope."

Churchill once famously said, "I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else." I  believe that these wise words may need to become the rallying call of the WEF, too, if it is to continue contributing answers to the challenges facing the world and not just raising questions.

I remember a conversation I had as a young man with an eternally optimistic family friend who told me that half-empty cups should always be seen as half full and oftentimes even one-third full. "Even if there is only a single drop of liquid in the cup, I consider it to be half full", he said. "But what if there is no cup?" I asked, mocking his positive outlook. "There is always a cup," he replied, leaving me speechless and much the wiser that day.

I was reminded of his words as I sat back this weekend to pour over my WEF notes and study the mood and opinions of the world on the web. I must confess I was taken aback, for example, by the number of tweets that talked of gloom and doom. If there were to be a "show of hands" poll, the prophets of doom would have outnumbered the hopeful ones in Davos, too. But, somehow, the overbearing cynicism didn't seem to add up.

Everywhere I looked while at Davos, there were indicators of action and commitment. For the first time at the conference, I noticed a boldness in how people approached even the toughest and most sacred notions. As session after session attempted to redefine capitalism and the need to be inclusive, Bill Gates pledged $750 million to fight AIDS. And as German Chancellor Angela Merkel worked to shore up and restore confidence on the work-in-progress that is the Eurozone, economists, practitioners, academics, and business leaders huddled across lines to offer pragmatic solutions.

I saw a similar resolve on the challenge of job creation. For example, in a cross-industry CEO meeting on the topic, it was clear to me that most companies both planned to hire more people and build new sources of talent. There was a sense of urgent commitment in the room, a collective ownership of the problem and a collective resolve to solve it.

I also noticed a very different kind of revolution take shape in Davos. For want of a better phrase, let's call it a resurgence of trust. Business and political leaders from all walks of life emphasized the need for rebuilding public trust following the financial crisis. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski underlined it emphatically: "The crisis is not only an economic crisis, but also a crisis of trust. What we shall do is to restore trust." Expressions like these were signs of an encouraging and growing acceptance of responsibility among global leaders for tackling the problems we face. It was not surprising to see sessions on themes like "ethical dilemmas" and "wise leadership" overflowing with attendees.

We are used to waking up every morning to headlines that scream the bad news and box the good news into a corner, and I guess the naysayers are a reflection of the way our first-impulses have come to work. But at Davos, my notebook was full of more ideas and "to-dos" than red lines. And even though I wholeheartedly acknowledge the cynicism, in my heart I am more confident than ever that there are still enough cups out there and they are all full of enough water. All we need now is a little bit of faith.

Vineet Nayar is vice chairman and CEO of HCL Technologies and the author of Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down.

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