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Great leaders ask these 4 questions

Great Leaders Ask These 4 Questions 
The World Economic Forum
Oct. 20, 2023

Leadership is more critical than ever but harder to find. This is according to a new survey from consultants Deloitte which reveals that few leaders are perceived as ready to lead effectively in this time of major business and societal changes.

“True leaders are the ones that know how to engage others and to make sure that they are good civil society citizens,” says Angela Williams, the CEO and president of the non-profit United Way Worldwide. At the time of writing, it supports 1,100 communities in 37 countries with everything from access to healthy food and safe drinking water, to youth and adult education.

Williams certainly knows how to engage and mobilize people and resources. She has been a lawyer, a Baptist minister and served in the US military during Operation Desert Storm.

In a conversation with Linda Lacina for the World Economic Forum’s Meet the Leader podcast, she talked about the art of advocacy and shared some of her learnings. Here are the edited highlights of the podcast.

Getting an early start in advocacy 

You could say Williams was born into advocacy. Her father was a minister and director of the National Association of Coloured People in South Carolina during the civil rights movement.

“My parents were people who cared about neighbours during the height of the civil rights movement in the United States when Black people were not able to vote. We were not able to access restaurants, hotels or other businesses in the same way that white citizens could,” Williams remembers.

“What my parents did was to advocate: why can't we come together as human beings and integrate? Seeing that encouraged me to be that voice for underrepresented people, for people who may be left behind. We all have that obligation to create a seat at the table for everyone to be included.

“One of the things that I think is so vital for youth is volunteering: being engaged in the community and learning that there are people around us – our neighbours, our friends, our colleagues, our schoolmates – that may have needs,” Williams says.

Listen First
Williams highlights that volunteering teaches empathy, identifying critical needs in the community and problem-solving. It also helps people to hone their leadership skills and rally others to their cause.

Key to all of this is active listening.

“To be the best advocate starts with using your two ears first before you use the one mouth,” explains Williams. “When you sit and listen to someone, allowing them to tell their story, that helps you better understand their condition and mindset – and makes you a better advocate.”

The principle of empathy extends into the way her charity United Way Worldwide approaches communities. 

Ask these four questions.
“We never, ever show up in a community to be the saviour. We show up as a partner. And as a partner, we ask those living in the community to have a seat at the table,” says Williams about the organization’s process, which she describes as co-creating a solution with the communities concerned.

“In order to form a partnership, there needs to be a mutual understanding. What motivates you? What drives you? What are the principles that guide how you act and how you show up? And then what is the end goal?”

Asked about the main trait that keeps her going as a leader, even in the face of adversity, Williams says that maintaining a positive attitude is vital.

“As a leader, you're always going to have problems that you're going to have to solve. And the road may not always be easy. But the one thing I always hold on to is joy. And I love to laugh. So, if you can keep laughing, you can keep leading.”