Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” The world seems to be in need of such encouragement at the moment. Confusion abounds. Leaders seem to have lost the plot, and the map as well.
We had a different feeling about the world two years ago. Remember how, in September 2015, world leaders accepted 17 bold, sustainable development goals as a roadmap for the future of the world? In December of the same year, in Paris, 195 countries achieved consensus on a global climate change agreement. With such significant breakthroughs, collaboration was the new global mantra and it seemed that sustainable development was becoming mainstream, even achievable — until the unravelling began.
The first sign of a changing script was Brexit. A once promising and needed example of regional governance, the Eurozone now seems at risk of falling apart. Next followed the ascendance of Donald Trump, an advocate for the resurgence of a nationalistic version of the American dream, a climate change denier, and a man with little appetite for a global pact on sustainable development.
The cause of this turnabout in the UK and US, and now emerging in other countries, has been analysed by many, and explanations abound: globalisation went too far, the liberals are out of touch, the income gap has become too wide, trust is in deficit, locals want aliens out and their jobs back, exclusivity seems favoured over inclusivity, national interest now trumps global inclusiveness. The precariousness of our present position is self-evident.
The optimism of 2015 has waned; the former imperative for collaboration in the interest of global sustainability now competes with a drive towards self-protective strategies, with limited appetite for the global common good. We seem caught between the call for cohesion and the pull towards separation.
Sustainable development, with all its complexities, is our collective, inescapable global imperative at this time in history. Since we, as the human species, have co-produced the unsustainable conditions that we presently face, we cannot now try to fix our problems separately. Withdrawal into self-centric and nationalistic sentiments and strategies signifies a willingness to forsake collective responsibility. We need to repair the way in which we work together, not walk away under the pretext of being able to make it on our own.
This tension-ridden space between collaboration and separation is not new. Societies have been through such stages before as part of the historical process. However, the stuckness needs to be overcome.
The leaders that the world needs now are not the self-serving populist ones who validate their legitimacy in the fearful and protective sentiments of angry and disillusioned people. Nor do we need those who have become intellectually and economically so distanced from the sentiments and struggles of ordinary people that they are no longer capable of authentically empathising with their daily battles of existence.
The world needs responsible leaders, women and men who are responsive, wise and brave. Such leaders understand that real influence is dependent on the affirmation of a broad range of stakeholders, not just followers. Leaders who seek the common good are both visionary, because they create hope beyond shallow promises, and relational, because they value the price of human trust.
Where do we find leaders of this calibre? Surprisingly, the 2017 World Economic Forum at Davos had ‘responsive and responsible leadership’ as its theme. It was almost as if they were taking a stand amid the tension between collaboration and separation. In one of the sessions, the business community was invited to sign up to a new compact for responsive and responsible leadership.
The compact states that corporations and investors are powerful actors in society and their responsive and responsible leadership can significantly improve the state of the world. Signatories to the compact therefore share the conviction that society is best served when corporations align their own goals to serve the long-term goals of society, that long-term economic prosperity and social welfare are more important than short-term financial gain, that corporate governance is essentially about securing long-term value creation among various societal stakeholders, and that disagreement between stakeholders is best resolved in a transparent and respectful manner.
You may be cynical and argue that the WEF declaration sponsored by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development was staged, and that only time will tell if the promoters and signatories were authentically committed to such a lofty undertaking. The fact is that this is the kind of direction that we need to affirm if business is to counter some of the ideological stupidities we see in the world of politics.
Away from the world stage, in the period 2012–2014, I participated in a research project where we interviewed CEOs and senior executives of 12 leading South African companies from different industries. We were interested in how these executives were dealing with the economic and social context of South Africa, especially in a post-recession and post-Marikana context.
In these executives we found people with a sense of self-reliance based on their inner resourcefulness to offer moral guidance through personal integrity and brave decision making. These executives had a particular understanding of responsibility, namely to be thoughtful about their role and their businesses in society, knowing they had no importance above that of being stakeholders in a shared future with other sectors and organisations.
Most interesting, perhaps, was the dimension of spirituality emerging from the conversations. The interviewees spoke about life and leadership as not being about success, but about meaningfulness, purpose, values and identity. They spoke about the relevance of a leader’s capacity for humanity, empathy, solidarity, fairness, justice and diversity. In broader societal and global terms, they spoke about the necessity for sustainability awareness and responsiveness, because of their deep concerns about the impact of inequality, poverty, hunger, unemployment and bad education on our country, and elsewhere.
We therefore have among us the leaders who can take a stand in the uncomfortable middle ground between collaboration and separation. They can do it, not because of their ability to walk the tightrope of appeasement, but by allowing their inner voice to determine what they say and do.
The condition of the world is largely a reflection of what humanity has become — short-sighted, selfish and divided. The world can again be sustainable and humane as a result of what we are capable of being: responsive, responsible, wise and brave.
When Archbishop Tutu spoke of hope, he did not call us to wait passively on better days. Hope actively seeks the common good. He also said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it is those little bits of good put all together that overwhelm the world.”
Will the responsible leaders please step forward?
Arnold Smit is the head of Social Impact at USB and programme director of USB-ED’s Africa Directors Programme. As associate professor of Business in Society, his academic and consulting expertise focuses on the integration of ethics, responsibility and sustainability in management development and organisational practice.