S1. E18. David Nabarro

David Nabarro is Strategic Director of 4SD, which enables changemakers to be effective for equity, justice and regenerative futures in a complex, fast-changing world (Wikipedia, Twitter).

David was a practicing medical doctor and then went into a very distinguished career in international civil service. He was the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Sustainable Development and Climate Change in the mid-2010s, and was part of negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals. He has a long association with the World Health Organisation, most recently as Special Envoy on COVID-19. (In the UK, if you listened to the Today Programme during the pandemic, then you almost certainly heard several interviews with David.)

The main focus of the conversation was creating national and global systems change through bringing people together, often people with conflicts and different values. For David, the process of coming to a story that means something to us all on an issue is almost the most powerful part of the kind of leadership.

In this podcast, David was speaking in a personal capacity. We recorded it on 6 May 2022. David, rightly, tells me off at 25:49 for attributing an approach to him but not letting him respond. Oops. Listen right to the end for a moment which is both very English and very un-English moment in the expression of emotion.



2021 UN Food Systems Summit and 4SD’s Food Systems Summit Dialogues.

What 4SD means by systems leadership.

4SD’s COVID Narratives

More on Nobel Prize winner Malala here.

Presencing Institute is now the u-school for transformation with Otto Scharmer.


00:50 – Q1 What are you doing now? And how did you get there?
19:59 – Q2. What is the future you are trying to create, and why?
23:11 – Q3. What are your priorities for the next few years, and why?
27:40 – Q4. If someone was inspired to follow those priorities, what should they do next?
30:22 – Q5. If your younger self was starting their career now, what advice would you give them?
Q6. Who would you nominate to answer these questions, because you admire their approach?
31:52 – Q7. Is there anything else important you feel you have to say?


-“What I’m saying is, don’t try to force everybody into the same direction, instead, find ways to be comfortable working with multiple positions, and then with a kind of magnetic field, help them to shift to a different way of thinking and working. And when we haven’t got the answer, and it doesn’t always work.”

-“I tell you my only gift case that I know I don’t have the answers. I’d rather be in a situation where I can say, Okay, you guys come in, come in everybody. And let’s hear the answers from you. And I get joy. I used to be a disc jockey when I was younger. And sometimes when I’m doing these kinds of roles, I feel I’m being a disc jockey now, but not with music, but a disc jockey, with ideas.”

-“I may have studied and got fancy degrees and so on, but I don’t have the answers. Because I can only get the answers if I listen to other people see the issues. And then suddenly, it becomes different, because you realise that other people have really strong views that are not the same as ours. And those can be justified within our own value system. So it’s actually not terribly helpful to simply say to them, your value system is rubbish, your ideology is wrong, and therefore, you are wrong, and therefore, I need to beat you. So in terms of success, it doesn’t work.”

-“I gradually watched [when practicing as a doctor in hospital], and I saw that the health care groups that worked really well together, just eroded those boundaries between people, which were often reinforced by power and status differentials or reinforced by their professionalism in their specialty, you know, the neurologist and the surgeon would often have rather different personality types. And but the ones that work are the ones where people communicate with curiosity with respect, because they know it’s the right thing to do.”

-“Real life, David, in real life, what happened? It’s never one approach, or the other, it’s never that clear. Look, you can’t just use the open systems approach where everybody gets credit, and you co create and find a direction together. It’s never that simple. In fact, in systems work, people really want somebody to help find the linear path through to look at how the system shift my work. So actually, in real life, you need a bit of a linear, and a bit of the systems. And the magic comes when you link the two together.” [Soundbite]

-“I would like to invest as much of my time and energy as possible, as a teacher in helping to demonstrate the advantages of this combined way of working [linear and systems]. And I believe leading where the living systems approach, and the directed and targeted approach are brought together. And they’re used together to help resolve complex and messy issues in different parts of the world.”

-[In creating systems change] “there has to be a story. And the story has to be something that the majority of people can either buy into, or at least having studied, decide to reject, it’s got to be a story that means something, I love you, I love it, or I don’t like it at all, or something in between. And that’s because without a story, we humans find it super difficult to either to explain it and sense things for ourselves, or to make sense of things.”

-“What am I saying, the process of coming to find a story, that means something to us all, in a community around our food around our health, and then adapting that story in discussing around that story. That is actually where the dialogues leaders, and that is for me, right now, I believe, almost the most powerful part of the kind of leadership that I encourage, because if a lot of people can buy into a story and bring it into their own thinking, that makes a huge difference.”

-Advice to younger self: “I just say, follow your heart.”


1 thought on “S1. E18. David Nabarro

  1. Pingback: S1. E26. Charlotte Dufour | David Bent

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