Davos Diary: Day Three

The day dawned clear and cold in Davos, but most participants in the World Economic Forum here had little bandwidth for the weather.
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The day dawned clear and cold in Davos, but most participants in the World Economic Forum here had little bandwidth for the weather. Typically, Thursday and Friday are the days when some of the most powerful leaders come to town. This means larger entourages (and bigger traffic jams to accommodate convoys), higher energy levels in the Congress Center, the Forum's main hall, and greater attention to who's who in formal sessions and those behind closed doors (I, for one, could not help staring when former U.S. president Bill Clinton walked by as I was standing at one of the two coffee bars).

During the lunch break, the substantive buzz was about French president Nicolas Sarkozy's morning address and his unflagging support for the European single currency in the wake of Greece and Ireland's pressing fiscal problems and broader mass protests. Over a cheese sandwich, I eavesdropped on an animated conversation about how important it was (or was not) for Sarkozy to send such a signal at this moment.

I left this debate midstream to scurry on to an interactive session on Shakespeare's lessons for leadership. For more than an hour, about 50 men and women analyzed several passages in the Bard's plays, looking for insights and assorted "takeaways" to apply in our respective lives. The arts, our discussion leader explained, appeal to the heart as well as the head, so the lessons we glean from understanding literature and other similar pursuits stick ("Here, here," I said under my breath, relieved to find myself in a professional setting without PowerPoint slides). I have long been drawn to Shakespeare's stories, particularly the characters that shape and drive these stories. In my leadership work with MBA students and executives, I often use examples from Shakespeare, finding that these instances resonate with most people. As our discussion leader said, we "learn best from stories."

The conversation in the afternoon about three Shakespeare excerpts had a number of takeaways. The passage from Hamlet, for example, in which Polonius, a courtier in Hamlet's uncle's court, sends his son, Laertes, off to school in France, is full of important lessons for business and life, including: listen more than you speak; make friends carefully and keep those you have close; be careful with your personal finances; dress well, but do not be flashy; and perhaps most significant, "to thine own self be true." A second excerpt, from Julius Caesar, between two angry Roman leaders, Brutus and Cassius, dealt with conflict management. Avoid getting personal in stressful encounters, don't assume another person's motivations, and be mindful of outside influences were several of the insights from this dramatic exchange.

The final, and most famous excerpt, was the St. Crispin's Day speech that Henry V delivers near the end of the play named after him. The short speech, intended to rally the English king's troops before the Battle of Agincourt, is elegant and moving. Behind the power and unforgettable language are a number of lessons for those trying to motivate others in difficult situations: appealing to a worthy mission that is bigger than any one individual, instilling pride in colleagues and comrades, bringing the future into the present to help others understand the broader impact of what they are doing, offering one's team a choice about whether to invest in a particular undertaking, and fostering a sense of collective enterprise. I left the session engaged and heartened, not only by what I had learned from the session but by how I had learned it.

Late in the afternoon, I filed into the largest auditorium in the Congress Hall to hear a conversation between Bill Clinton and Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. For 45 minutes, Clinton answered a range of questions about Haiti, the global economy, job creation, U.S. politics, and the shifting geopolitical order. He looked thinner--by some measure--than he has and as a result perhaps a bit less robust.

But his answers were thoughtful, confident without being arrogant, and consistently supported by relevant facts. At several moments during his remarks, I marveled at his speed and breadth of thinking, all powered by great engagement. Unconstrained by the limits imposed on officeholders, Clinton talked about the mistakes the Democratic Party made in the midterm elections by not offering up another narrative to that told (relentlessly) by the political right. When asked for his advice to leaders, he said individuals should not just talk about particular challenges; they should go out and do something, no matter how small, about these challenges. The world, he continued, is "so hungry for examples of things that work." I was most struck by Clinton's implicit call for a revised version of capitalism, one that accounted for the interconnectedness of our global village, that no longer regarded aspects of economic activity such as environmental concerns as externalities but rather as critical parts of a viable business model, and that recognized a broader breadth of stakeholders than do older, narrower conceptions of free markets.

Late in the evening, a friend in Boston sent me a text message about a small explosion here in a Davos hotel. It was the first I had heard of this although the blast, which happened in an underground storage area of the Morosani Posthotel, occurred about 9 a.m. Blessedly, no one was injured, and authorities are saying little about causes or circumstances. Security will no doubt be very tight for the remainder of this gathering. Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner is speaking in the morning. And in the afternoon--in what was the Forum highlight for me--so did Bono.

Coming up: Stay tuned for my World Economic Forum recap on Monday and keep following my tweets live from the event.

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