The 2021 Distinguished Leadership Awards: Celebrating the exceptional individuals meeting today’s extraordinary challenges

Considering the many ups and downs of 2021—an uneven pandemic recovery, plus successes and setbacks for democracies worldwide—it’s worth saluting those who have helped power progress and strive for stability in these tumultuous times.

That’s what the Atlantic Council set out to do at Wednesday’s Distinguished Leadership Awards (DLA), honoring exemplary individuals who have contributed to the Council’s mission of shaping the global future together across a wide range of fields.

During a time of great global discord, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has displayed a fierce commitment to maintaining transatlantic ties. And amid the gravest public-health crisis in a century, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, along with BioNTech co-founders Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin, have showcased the best of what business can offer society. 

Meanwhile, Grammy Award-winning singer Dua Lipa has used her star power to help lift her ancestral homeland, Kosovo, from post-war poverty and provide an entire generation the gift of hope.

As the Atlantic Council marks its sixtieth anniversary, the organization’s President and CEO Frederick Kempe harkened back to its founding moment—when a young Kennedy administration was tested by the Soviet Union. He noted that there are strong parallels between the extraordinary circumstances in which the Council arose and today’s challenges, which range from the pandemic to climate change to competition with China. “That is why we are all here together, understanding the historic imperative of our times now is no less than at the time of our founding—and perhaps even greater,” Kempe said.

This year’s DLA honorees have proven that big advances are possible even when the road ahead looks most daunting. Here are some of the insights they shared with attendees at the gala dinner at Mellon Auditorium in Washington and with viewers around the world. (Read the full transcript here.)

Watch the full event

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen accepts her award at the Atlantic Council’s Distinguished Leadership Awards dinner on November 10, 2021, at Mellon Auditorium in Washington, DC. (Photos by Elman Studio for the Atlantic Council.)

Ursula von der Leyen: “This year has reminded us that we must stand up for democracy every day”

  • Von der Leyen described the United States and the European Union as “natural partners” well-suited to jointly countering climate change and “rewriting modern rules for the global economy.” On the latter point, she cited the bloc’s new Global Gateway strategy—comparing it to US President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better World initiative as “a multiplier for high-standard investment in infrastructure” worldwide. “It will forge links,” she said, “not create dependencies.” She added: “When the European Union and the United States come together, we have the power to shape the world of tomorrow, from 6G to green finance.” 
  • Protecting democracy both at home and abroad should also be a priority for the transatlantic partnership, von der Leyen said, calling out authoritarian meddling in democratic elections, the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, and anti-democratic tendencies around the European Union. “This year has reminded us that we must stand up for democracy every day,” she said to applause from the crowd. 
  • The battle for those values increasingly plays out online. Von der Leyen noted the Council’s push for a transatlantic digital policy, which is now bearing fruit with the EU-US Trade and Technology Council. “We have a convergent vision on how digital platforms should work in open societies and open economies,” she said.
  • Invoking her American-born great grandmother and US-educated father—along with her two American children—the longtime Cabinet member under German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the “shared values” that bind both sides of the Atlantic: “The story of the transatlantic ties is made of millions of stories like mine.”

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Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla.

Albert Bourla: “To defeat [the virus], we must be united”

  • A veterinarian by training from Thessaloniki, Greece, Bourla described the response to the pandemic as “a great example of the power of transatlantic cooperation” and a lesson in common cause. “The virus knows no geographic borders,” he said. “It does not discriminate based on race, religion, gender, financial condition, or political affiliation, which is a mistake that we greatly make, particularly in this country. So, to defeat it, we must be united.”
  • Bourla reflected on the bond between himself and his BioNTech business partners. “I can’t think of a better example of this unity than the strong relationship enjoyed by the leaders, the humans, of our two companies. Think about it: one a Jew from Greece, immigrated to America; the other a Muslim from Turkey, immigrated to Germany,” he said, referring to fellow honoree Ugur Sahin. “Some might consider it an unlikely pairing. I consider it my very good fortune.”
  • And the two companies are not letting up. By the end of this year, Bourla said, Pfizer and BioNTech will plan to pump out three billion vaccine doses, with another four billion slated for 2022. That’s not all: Just last week, Pfizer announced that its new oral antiviral drug reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 percent among high-risk COVID-19 patients, which “has the potential to be a real game changer,” he said, “but in all cases should not be news that will feed vaccine hesitancy. Vaccines are very important.”
  • Also central to fighting the deadly disease is public-private partnership, Bourla added, which has allowed Pfizer to provide the US government low-priced vaccines to donate to poorer countries. “And we are working with the EU on not only supply agreements but also education campaigns to help address vaccine hesitancy,” he said.
BioNTech co-founder Özlem Türeci accepts her award as her husband, co-founder, and fellow honoree Ugur Sahin looks on.

Özlem Türeci: “We all let science and data be our teachers”

  • Türeci said she was puzzled at first to be receiving a leadership award rather than a science award, but she soon realized that “the key [virtues] for turning science into survival” are similar to those exhibited by leaders.
  • “The search for a COVID-19 vaccine, a quest deep in uncharted territory, required courage and also required humility, which means staying teachable,” she said. “All stakeholders were open to learn from each other in the face of a global threat. And we all let science and data be our teachers.”
  • Türeci added that the secret to their success has been “a tribe of comrades, of like-minded people,” laser-focused on leveraging their scientific smarts to help humanity. 

Ugur Sahin: “The desire to help others is hardwired and encoded in our genes”

  • Adding to his wife’s list of must-haves for successful, humanity-oriented science, Sahin singled out social responsibility. “I know that the desire to help others is hardwired and encoded in our genes—or you could also say our mRNA,” he said. “These genes are not always active. They often need a trigger to be activated—an inspiration, an example, someone to take the first step.”
  • This is what drove the BioNTech team to grind, as Sahin described it, “in 24/7 shifts, to work day and night, also on the weekends, and go the thousands of extra miles.” Sometimes, he added, “the work of scientists and drug developers is celebrated—like this evening’s impressive award—but most often it happens behind the scenes in quiet labs or at [a] patient’s bedside.” 
Grammy Award-winning musician and activist Dua Lipa.

Dua Lipa: “Give us a chance, and we will excel”

  • Honored for her efforts to help Kosovo through her Sunny Hill Foundation, which seeks to improve quality of life in the young nation, the British-born singer painted her parents’ birthplace as a thriving cultural hub “bursting with creativity.”
  • Still, she said the scars of war remain visible and even the younger generation struggles to seize opportunities to grow, work, and travel. “Even with a determined and bold national spirit,” she said, “it takes time to recover and find a new footing.”
  • That’s why Lipa and her father launched the Sunny Hill Foundation, which stages an annual music festival that brings A-list artists to Pristina and will soon break ground on an arts and innovation center that will offer young people a creative space. “We are just thirteen short years into our journey of independence and as part of a strong international community, we will thrive emotionally. We will thrive economically and culturally,” she said. “It is in our DNA.”

 Dan Peleschuk is the New Atlanticist editor at the Atlantic Council.

Read the transcript

New Atlanticist

Nov 10, 2021

Full Transcript: 2021 Distinguished Leadership Awards honor bold visionaries in challenging times

By Atlantic Council

Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Ursula von der Leyen, Dua Lipa, and Albert Bourla accepted the Atlantic Council’s recognition Wednesday night for their leadership in shaping the global future.

European Union International Organizations

Further reading

Image: Dua Lipa accepted the Atlantic Council's Distinguished Leadership Award on November 10, 2021. Photo via Elman Studio/for the Atlantic Council