A polarized U.S. presidential race; question marks over China's economic management; and a once-dominant German chancellor suddenly under threat.

Those were the flash points that dominated last week's annual gathering of the World Economic Forum as executives, investors and policy makers fretted about the lack of leadership in a world beset by multiple crises. With the global economy already slowing and financial markets whipsawing, the risk is that an otherwise manageable set of challenges could cascade out of control without a firmer hand from governments.

"There are too many moving parts, jittery parts, and those parts don't seem to talk particularly well with each other," Ton Buechner, the chief executive officer of Dutch industrial group AkzoNobel NV, said in an interview in Davos. "There's just a high number of simultaneous concerns taking place."