The face of corporate leadership in a post dystopian society
As someone who has been involved in innovating several purpose-with-profit business initiatives over the years, I am frequently challenged with a recurrent question: What makes for a good leader? Are they inherent qualities lying dormant and just waiting to be realized or are they shaped through a myriad of environmental factors? Regardless if it is nurture or nature - or a bit of both – society is clearly in short supply of them in these dystopian times.
Global communities are currently experiencing the unrelenting rise of economic inequality aligned to an existential threat to personal security driven by climate change and life-ending pandemics. Yet, civil societies are turning in droves toward autocratic forms of leadership in search of comforting answers to primal fears. Democratic leadership styles conversely are under siege and with it, the moral and ethical code that has been so crucial to how we protect our freedoms.
The concept of leadership - much defined, researched and disputed over the centuries - still lacks a universal perspective as to what it constitutes - but yet when we see it in practice, we recognise it instantly! And yes, they are likely to be a product of our shared social and environmental circumstance; shaped by opportunity, tempered through adversity and required by a moment in history to rise to the demands of a different approach to what went before. So why are we currently struggling to find sufficient business and political leaders of today that can rise to the to extraordinary and most precarious of challenges of tomorrow?
The 21st Century paradox - an increasingly open and connected world operating in parallel to an increasingly unequal and disconnected marketplace - is taking the “social contract” between the instruments of power and civil society to breaking point. Classical Keynesian economic solutions in the Western world can no longer be a viable leadership guide on their own and trickle-down monetarist economics has simply failed to trickle to the benefit of the many and not just the few. Equally, the reliance of business-leaders “do-gooding” through traditional corporate responsibility tools has been successful only up to a point.
If we are to achieve real seismic change, it will require the creators of wealth to provide leadership capable of achieving sustainable prosperity for the whole community and not exclusively to the elite few. It will require tomorrow’s innovators in business to accept - what for me is the blindingly obvious - that the greatest risk to financial capital in the 21st Century will be the unyielding rise of global inequality. It will require a seismic shift from ‘do-gooding’ to Good Business
These extraordinary times will require different leadership qualities to emerge that are not traditionally familiar to the business executive. Working with and not against this complexity will be the key challenge. To be more specific, finding business solutions to perennial social and problems that also impede shareholder value should become our new normal.
For example, all businesses, small or large, share the same threats posed: global pandemics, rapid population growth in cities, housing shortages, skills shortages, regional and rural depopulation, mass migrant movements, youth unemployment, climate change, fuel poverty, resource depletion and the continually shrinking capacity of the ecosystem to support us.
Now - more than at any other time - we are aware of the extraordinary challenges we face. Solutions are more likely to be found through an inter dependent world reliant more on networks and less on organisations; more on creators of wealth and less on policy makers. These are where our good leaders are to be found. The 20th Century rulebook of State and political leaders “calling the shots” has lost our trust like never before.
We no longer have the leaders we need because we are no longer certain of the leaders we want. And the world needs – like at no other time – leaders who are capable of driving business innovation, large or small, that is also socially responsible. In the absence of building the critical mass of leaders capable of bursting the festering boil of unrelenting social and environmental inequality, we will continue to experience the growth of nationalist movements emerging and a return to protectionist markets, closed borders and greater insecurity experienced by all.
The dangers are immense and on some level most of us – albeit sub-consciously – are aware that our instinct of self-preservation will tell us that change needs to occur as an increasingly open and connected world of powerful networks are irreversibly replacing the once all-powerful organisation. This is a destabilising notion to accept. But it can also be a catalyst of personal and professional existential growth for the global community. For instance, how often does one hear “I want to be able to maximise my profitable returns/meet my targets but I also want to be able to make a difference; but what can I do on my own when the rest of the my colleagues thinks differently.” If truth be-told, you are not alone and the little joined up makes for a lot. The little on their own remains...little!
The 21st Century challenge for the business leader and the future business leader will be to keep pace with the speed of technological and environmental change without it irrevocably destabilizing our intrinsic moral and ethical anchors. The challenge ultimately will be in succeeding to connect en masse private profit with public good, shareholder value with social purpose and sustainable innovation with institutional investment. There has never been a more timely moment to accept this challenge.