Leading lights from business, politics, religion, and the arts and sciences met in Istanbul for The Performance Theatre 2013, from 14 to 15 June.

The theme for the annual meeting of minds – this year, ‘Leadership for the future’ – had, as always, been set months in advance. But then it took on new significance when what began as a peaceful protest against the redevelopment of Gezi Park as a shopping mall unravelled into an anti-government uprising in the week before the theatre.

With so many of the city’s people braving the teargas of Taksim Square to make a dramatic statement about their leaders, where better to host a frank and fiery debate on the leadership we need to create a new kind of growth?

Hot topics

As a result of the protests, welcoming speeches courtesy of the Republic of Turkey’s Egemen Ba???, Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator, and Ali Babacan, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic and Financial Affairs, took on special meaning. Former journalist Nuri M Çolakoglu gave the city colour and context as he steered the audience through its Roman past to its promising present in his keynote.

A session exploring the roles and responsibilities of religious leaders in shaping society – for better and worse – also ignited lively debate. Chaired by Bawa Jain, founding secretary general of The World Council of Religious Leaders, this brought together representatives from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and spiritualism.

As with any good debate, the words of the politicians and religious leaders raised more questions than answers. But to see them united on one stage, and subject to open and honest questioning, surely bodes well for the future of global leadership.

Other highlights

Another highlight was seeing General David Petraeus and Sir John McLeod Scarlett sharing the stage in the Act 1 session – ‘Peace and war on our watch: what really worries us?’. The respective former US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director and former British Secret Intelligence Service chief gave fascinating glimpses into the challenges leaders face in conflict scenarios. Naturally, the audience was keen to get their take on the unrest in Turkey, some questioning the role countries such as America and the UK play in staging interventions. Their responses gave guests an insight into leadership and decision-making at the very highest echelons of government.

In the Act 2 session entitled ‘The Fat and the Furious’, chair Achim Steiner, United Nations Environment Programme executive director and under-secretary-general of the UN, together with speakers Peter Bakker, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and Anson Chan, chairman and CEO of the Bonds Group of Companies, provided plenty of food for thought. Exploring the inequalities caused by capitalism, leaders were encouraged to start valuing their values in order to redress the balance between population and economic growth.

Come Act 4, we turned our attentions to the bigger picture in ‘See the system’. Here, Marks & Spencer chairman Robert Swannell, together with speakers Dr Elisabet Sahtouris, evolution biologist and futurist; Ambassador Mithat Rende, Director General for Multilateral Economic Affairs, Energy and Environment for the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs; and Jeremy B Bentham, Global Business Environment vice president for Royal Dutch Shell, urged leaders to adopt a systems view to tackle the challenges of an interconnected world.

Finally, The Performance Theatre chairman, Lord Browne of Madingley, gave an inspiring closing address. Summarising some of the key messages from the meeting, Lord Browne told us what some of our greatest leaders – such as Carnegie, Tata and Cadbury – have done to give something back to society. As he said: “They set examples of excellence for others to emulate. When they professed a concern for inequality, or a commitment to philanthropy, they really meant what they said. They walked their talk, and in doing so, they brought people with them. That is the hallmark of a truly great leader.”

The theatre’s other speakers also provided topical thoughts on leadership for the future, sharing invaluable knowledge and sparking lively audience participation throughout the two-day meeting. Breakout discussions on the media, innovation, education, culture and architecture also proved particularly memorable.

Our moderators, breakout hosts and debate ‘fire-starters’ did a superb job, too, bringing order, energy and humour to our discussions. Our thanks also to our partners and sponsors.

Conclusion from our founder

Summing up, The Performance Theatre’s founder Osvald Bjelland said: “At its essence, leadership is about finding a better way – something we will forever be students in. And so this year’s theatre set out to ask the searching questions needed to find that way, with Istanbul providing an inspiring, deeply meaningful backdrop for our discussions. With so many great leaders and thinkers having shared their insights on the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ elements of what it takes to lead in today’s world – what I call the ‘philosophy and physics’ of effective leadership – I feel we have learned a lot that we can now put into practice.”

Conclusion from our founder

Summing up, The Performance Theatre's founder Osvald Bjelland said: "At its essence, leadership is about finding a better way - something we will forever be students in. And so this year's theatre set out to ask the searching questions needed to find that way, with Istanbul providing an inspiring, deeply meaningful backdrop for our discussions. With so many great leaders and thinkers having shared their insights on the 'hard' and 'soft' elements of what it takes to lead in today's world - what I call the 'philosophy and physics' of effective leadership - I feel we have learned a lot that we can now put into practice."