You’ve likely not heard of Jim Hagemann Snabe’s hero: Malcolm McLean, the inventor of the shipping container. But McLean’s invention revolutionized the shipping industry and inarguably changed the world.

Snabe is the chair of Siemens AG and, until recently, A.P. Møller – Mærsk A/S, Europe’s largest industrial manufacturing company and the world’s largest maritime shipping company. So, naturally, he has an interest in McLean, whose invention of the shipping container in 1956 reduced the cost of transporting cargo by more than 90%, increased global trade by 200 times and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

Today, as a global leader in industry, Snabe is taking McLean’s torch and pursuing an equally audacious dream: decarbonizing shipping. And he has plenty more ideas for transforming the world as we know it.

He discussed his plans to make his dream a reality in a 2021 Ted Talk titled “Dreams and details for a decarbonized future,” explaining how a process he calls power-to-X would convert green electricity to green liquid fuel to power vessels. The talk followed the publication of his book “Dreams and Details,” in which he discusses how to reinvent organizations and leadership styles.

Now, he is bringing his strategies and transformative ideas to SMU Cox School of Business, in a timely new Executive Education course titled “Strategic Leadership in Times of Exponential Change” launching in spring 2023. Snabe will co-teach the course with Dr. Helmuth Ludwig, SMU Cox professor of practice in strategy and entrepreneurship. Together, they will lead the class through the “Dreams and Details” leadership model for meeting challenges that arise during transformational times — which, for this generation of business leaders, means the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

A New Leadership Model for a New Era

As with most transformations, McLean’s shipping containers created unforeseen challenges. The invention created a world in which 80% of the world’s goods are now transported over sea, a process that contributes to 9% of the world’s annual global CO2 emissions.

This is a huge incentive for Snabe’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2040, which Maersk committed to in 2018. The company is developing a green-fueled liner vessel to launch in 2023 — seven years ahead of schedule; over the next 20 years, Maersk will switch over its entire fleet of nearly 750 ships.

When they made this commitment, “We did not know how to do this,” Snabe acknowledges. But the dream has to come before the details.

“If nothing is plannable, why are we trying to execute plans?” Snabe challenges business leaders in “Dreams and Details,” which he co-authored with Mikael Trolle, CEO of Idonea, the Dreams and Details Academy. “It’s obvious that the leadership model we practiced for 200 years — about hierarchy, control, executing plans and being accurate on outcomes — seems to be obsolete when the plan is wrong.”

This is a challenge Snabe and Ludwig currently present to SMU Cox MBA students as they prepare to carry the torch of transformation into a new generation of business leaders who will be defined by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In this transformational period, disruptive technologies are fundamentally upending the way we live and work in as-yet-unforeseen ways — meaning business leaders may have to rethink almost everything and adapt as this new reality unfolds. Snabe and Ludwig feel it’s important to present the leadership model they’ve been teaching MBAs to executives, which is one of the reasons the Executive Education course will be offered this spring.

Snabe’s answer to this central conundrum — how to plan for the unplannable — is simple: Stop planning. Instead, choose one big dream — think Maersk’s goal to bring down global CO2 emissions­, Steve Jobs’ personal computer, or John F. Kennedy’s moon shot. Then lay down the details that will serve as the treasure map to reaching it. 

That may be easier said than done. But in Snabe’s view, it boils down to those two complementary leadership qualities that Malcolm McLean exemplified: the audacity to dream and the laser focus on detailing it into reality.

The Imperative to Transform

A major challenge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is one that’s close to Snabe’s heart: climate change. The economic growth and technological developments that characterize this era of change are contributing significantly to global carbon emissions and other threats to the world’s survival. At the same time, these new tools and possibilities can be wielded to solve those very problems, as in the green vessels Snabe is spearheading at Maersk.

Speed of adoption as tech transforms so rapidly is another challenge, particularly when it comes to governments keeping pace and public policy falling into place fast enough to regulate new tech and protect people. This is a particular concern with regard to the widening of the income inequality gap, gender pay gap, poverty rates and other social issues. The replacement of human workers with robots and AI also presents both challenges and opportunities, creating a need to elevate education access and training for workers in low-skilled jobs that are being automated. These are all issues future business leaders will need to contend with.

Arguably, a transformational approach to leadership has never been more important than now.

One trend Snabe highlights: The imperative to respond to climate change is pushing corporations to reinvent themselves from a position of proactivity rather than reactivity. But true reinvention comes from within — not a nominal changing of the guard but a radical commitment to changing your mind, your perspective or your organization’s culture.

“Why do we need a new CEO and chairman to reinvent the company?” Snabe argues. Reinvention should be “about defining a level of ambition,” he says. “It’s about translating strategy — not into plans but into inspiration.”

Conversations for a Better Future

Snabe, who was born in Denmark, has lived on every continent except Antarctica. He did spend seven years in Greenland as a child, however, “so,” he says, “I have the skills to build an igloo if necessary.” He calls himself a globalist, technologist and businessman. Though his focus is more on leadership than numbers, he expects his training as a mathematician will finally come into play “as AI begins to influence our future,” he predicts.

He may be coming full circle, but he’s convinced that the world is venturing inexorably into totally new terrain — something that suits him just fine. “I always challenge the current; I always challenge assumptions,” Snabe says, “so, in that sense, it’s something that fits my personality.”

Though the World Economic Forum coined the term Fourth Industrial Revolution, Snabe calls it the First Digital Revolution — “because it’s not more of the same.” And it never will be again.

The industrial past was all about economies of scale, with size trumping speed. It centered on improving things a little bit year after year, dutifully planning next year’s budget based on this year’s performance. The past is clearly past.

It was through the connections he made at Davos — an annual summit hosted by the World Economic Forum — with international business leaders, policymakers and other global ambassadors that Snabe first saw clearly how industry needed to shift away from the old assumption that “the business of business is business” and toward an inspirational leadership that sees transforming the way of doing business as a means of transforming everything else, too.

“There are 360 days between two Davos meetings, and we need to keep those networks and conversations going all year so that business can accelerate a more sustainable and more equal future,” Snabe says.

Those conversations will continue in Snabe and Ludwig’s course, joined by executives from C3 AI, Energinet Systemansvar and ldonea, who will contribute a range of perspectives on how to address the opportunities and challenges of a season change from a position of strength.

In addition to being offered as an MBA course, “Strategic Leadership in Times of Exponential Change” will launch as an Executive Education course for executive-level business leaders in spring 2023. Find more information or register here.

Jim Hagemann Snabe is chair of Siemens, former chair of Maersk and former co-CEO of SAP and a board member of the World Economic Forum. He co-authored “Dreams and Details” with Mikael Trolle. Dr. Helmuth Ludwig is a professor of practice in strategy and entrepreneurship at SMU Cox School of Business and a board member of Hitachi Ltd. as well as chair of the boards of CIRCOR International and Humanetics Group. He was CIO at Siemens.