What is “responsive and responsible leadership”? The World Economic Forum (WEF) is anointing this idea (or goal, or label, take your pick) as its theme for the 2017 Davos gathering. So, what exactly is this elite group talking about?

First, let’s be clear that the idea of an international collaborative effort to resolve global problems is a noble vision. If no one paid attention to what’s wrong in the world, societies wouldn’t be better off. And the WEF recognises that the global political economy has taken a turn toward much higher risk, whether in the form of Donald Trump in the US, Brexit in Europe, or China’s ongoing fixation on power and respect.

There is a dance at Davos among the powerful that has little to do with progress

I have long been critical of confabs like the World Economic Forum as a place to address such real issues. There is a dance at Davos among the powerful that has little to do with progress or resolving some of the world’s most intractable problems. It’s much more about demonstrating that you have been invited to the dance, that you are seen by others to be on the dance floor, and that you can tell people later that yes, you were indeed dancing. Didn’t you see me?

In truth, the irrelevance of the proceedings for the espoused purpose of collaboratively finding solutions to global issues is surpassed only by the profound symbolism of global elites gathering and hiding in isolation in the mountains of Switzerland.

Leading in life

There is a man who comes in to take the trash from my office every day. When I’m there we chat. He usually tells me that he’s been skiing, or to a concert, or helping out at the food bank in his neighbourhood, or spending time with friends and family. What he says is very simple and doesn’t seem so profound. But it is also truer than so much of what goes on at Davos. This man actually did those things that he shares with me. He is living his life, working, engaging, and thriving.

Of course it doesn’t compare to the heads of state and corporate CEOs vying for the best accommodations and being seen among the seen, but not in the way you might think. This man, this janitor, is real. He makes no grand plans, he lives his life. He doesn’t talk about helping others, he actually does it. He knows little about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (the label the WEF uses to describe the massive changes driven by digital technology, artificial intelligence, and robotics). But he does know about keeping our offices tidy and clean. That’s his job, he takes pride in it, and it adds value to me and others.

Forgive me for not being impressed with the people at Davos

This man is not alone. There is the woman who has cut my hair (what little I have left) for the last 15 years. I was there the other day, when I heard what her kids were up to (the older one in middle school might have a girlfriend), I heard about her weekend snowmobiling with her family, and I heard about the new gel she wants to try on me. She is a professional. And she’s real, too.

There’s also the bartender at my favourite spot in town. And the barista at PK Coffee, the pop-up espresso bar not too far from where I live. And the mailman who always stops to say hello when I’m outside. These people are real. They do whatever they do, every day —and they generally do the best they can.

There’s a word for people like this: society.

So forgive me for not being impressed with the people at Davos. They are acting in a complex play, being seen in the practice of helping the world be a better place. But the people I encounter every day, they aren’t acting. They’re doing. And I’ll take doing over acting every day of the week.

Crisis of the global elite

Global elites are in crisis. Despite a populist sentiment creating political change where few expected it, I don’t imagine that the elite will lose their power to any appreciable degree, because their power is truly awesome. Government leaders, corporate titans, non-profit and NGO presidents have more than enough tools at their disposal to stay in power and do their thing.

The most productive of the talks out of Davos leads to… deals that benefit the dealmakers

But if we expect them to solve society’s problems – and I truly wish this weren’t true – we’ll be waiting a long time, as in, forever.  They’re just not going to do it.

Eventually the most productive of the talks out of Davos leads to highly instrumental deals that benefit the dealmakers. When those deals become truly global in nature – climate change, for example – the likelihood of cheating and gamesmanship take over. Or they cause so much collateral damage that was never part of their envisioned grand bargains – global trade deals, for example – that they help incite a virtual global revolution. Witness how open markets are being blamed for massive inequality in the US, and unfettered immigration in the UK.

These big “solutions” have two deep-seated flaws: they are too complex, making it impossible to truly understand their unintended side effects; and their successful implementation requires a degree of trust among the parties that just doesn’t exist. Despite a stream of platitudes about the public good, everyone around the table knows they’re in a zero sum game where winning is paramount.

Nothing can happen without trust, and as it turns out trust doesn’t just materialise when powerful people talk to each other in Swiss chalets.

Trust emerges from interactions between or among two or more people where those people do exactly what each said they would do. They need not be perfect, nor do they need to strive for perfect solutions. They just have to follow through on what they said they would do.

If the giants of government, industry, and non-governmental entities can’t do it, how do you change the world?

When you trust others, you gain confidence, you become empowered, and you might even be willing to conjure up new solutions to old problems. In other words, you might become the creative problem solver, because if it doesn’t work you know you won’t get blamed.

Before you know it, people take on bigger challenges and start to be just a little bit better at whatever it is they do.

This seldom happens with global elites, however, who are prone to making giant promises, and by consequence, are regularly blamed for when those promises don’t quite work out the way they said they would. This is what has happened with global trade agreements, as one example.

So if the giants of government, industry, and non-governmental entities can’t do it, how do you change the world? How do you make life better?

I asked this question to my favourite barista, and she said: “Do you like your espresso today?” And I did.

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His latest book is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016).