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Have We Become Complacent?

You are a smart, modern leader. You get the need to address the issues of plastics in our oceans, gender equality, diversity, global warming, sustainable sourcing, biodiversity, modern day slavery, human rights, gig working, mental health, financial inclusion, and the living wage. All of these issues have been laid at your door. So, you are getting on with it. Just as you have got on with meeting shareholder expectations and dealing with threats of disruption from artificial intelligence, robotics and the new geopolitics. You are working hard to be a responsible leader, navigating through this cacophony of change amidst layers of governance, stewardship and compliance legislation. So how could addressing this overwhelming list possibly be seen as complacent? Perhaps we need to start thinking in a fundamentally different way about what it means to be a responsible business leader? At tomorrow’s company we believe that a significant and untenable gap has opened up between stakeholder and shareholder expectations. People are starting to feel that the vision of technology, consumption and globalisation presented to them as ‘progress’ by companies and governments is no longer producing the security, opportunity or happiness that they once took for granted. People are losing trust in leaders to make the best decisions on their behalf. We should be concerned. What if the forces of technology and unthinkable events that business are wrestling with are disrupting how the ‘everyday person’ thinks and feels about their lives? What if, at a far deeper level, this is affecting people’s sense of identity and equilibrium? Are we, the varied stakeholders who make up society, starting to question whether our society is progressing – whether our quality of life, personal freedoms, standard of living, prospects for our children, closeness of our relationships and strength of communities, are actually improving? Are we instead becoming more worried about precarious jobs, mental health, a deteriorating environment and care in our old age? It seems that we are entering a new era, not simply prefaced by changing technology, but also by the changing attitudes of people who, after years of simply wanting more, are starting to want something different. What is the difference that we want? Re-imagining Progress The leaders and politicians of the first Industrial Revolution positioned business as the engine of progress, driving economic, moral and social improvements, bringing the Western world to new levels of material wealth and in turn to a ‘higher level’ of civilisation. This faith in progress delivered by ‘democratic capitalism’ has been embraced by global leaders throughout the Cold War era and beyond, from Kennedy to Obama, from Schmidt to Merkel and from MacMillan to Cameron. It is now at risk of fracturing. As Die Welt commented following the recent 2018 G7 meeting, “the old tranquillity” has ended, whilst Mark Carney observed in a 2018 Mansion House speech, “the nature of our economy is changing in unnerving ways, threatening to impact our sense of identity and potentially undermining the higher achievements of humanity itself”. The model on which the world was supposedly converging has morphed out of shape. Business achievement is no longer synonymous with progress - far from it. Instead, the global financial meltdown of 2008 and the 2018 corporate collapses like Carillion, and data harvesting scandals at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, may have destroyed the last traces of that consensus. At the beginning of the fourth Industrial Revolution, we are becoming increasingly aware that power is shifting. When are we going to wake up and smell the silicone? In the struggle to grasp this new reality, our inherited concepts, our language, our behaviours and ways of thinking are inadequate to describe what is going on around us. The problems raised are not just intellectual but may amount to an existential crisis; we need a whole new narrative, not a set of sticking plasters. Businesses failing to address these problems are at risk of being seen as, at best, less relevant or, at worst, self-serving. Now more than ever, we need to rethink how business be the engine of progress, enabling us to innovate, invest and improve the way we do things. This is not just about function of business; this is about the needs we now face as a society if we want to continue to pay for the education, health care, infrastructure and arts that a modern, healthy civilised society need to function well. Perhaps, as Stanford and Oxford University Professor Eric Beinhocker proposed in 2014: “Progress can best be defined as the rate at which we are helping to solve the problems that face humanity”. Business has the wherewithal to do this, through its financial, technological and human firepower. Redefining progress is about lighting a new flame to illuminate a different path. We need to show the contribution that business can make and re-generate trust: creating not only new narratives, new capabilities, new structures and new ways of working, but above all a new set of aspirations and hopes for the future. If we are to meet the rising costs of an ageing society and the shocks of an unstable global economy we must be willing to take greater risks, to innovate, to invest in ventures which produce exceptional returns. If businesses do not rise to this challenge then they are likely to be constrained by further legislation that inhibits the appetite to take risks, to innovate, and to invest. This could well be the biggest unintended consequence of our current malaise.

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