This article recently appeared in the JSE magazine. Given the seriousness of the sustainability challenge and the wider audience that ED Focus services, I would like to share the article (with a few changes) with you in the hope of stimulating thinking regarding a matter that concerns all responsible leaders.
Back in 2006, at one of our company’s board meetings, a fellow board member offered the following opinion during a serious discussion: ‘It is only bulls and bears that make money, not pigs. They get slaughtered!’ An immediate response to this maxim-like statement is to associate it with greed – that primary emotion that so forcefully steers boards towards decisions and deeds that, when considered in hindsight, seem incomprehensible. Any astute CEO of a listed company on the JSE, who accepts responsibility for co-creating the institution that he or she is contracted to serve, who relies on factual and not emotional data, and who is tough and results-focused, should observe that the globalisation concept is a reality, with real implications for all aspects of business. This CEO would also recognise that the face of communication has changed significantly with the availability of and access to information of a magnitude never experienced before, with consequences for the way business is done. The CEO would see that democratisation is spreading, that people’s need for a higher order of being, i.e. to shift from subject to citizen, even to shift from consumer to citizen, is on the rise, and takes on different forms such as Occupy Wall Street and the Citizens’ Movement. The CEO would see that the gap between the haves and have-nots has become so large that it has eroded ordinary people’s patience to wait for the ‘cascading crumbs’, and that there is not enough earth left to accommodate the current way of living and doing business.
So much for surface observations. How to think, what to will and how to act? The CEO , MD or chairman with an intelligent leadership mind, who knows that depth of human understanding makes excellent business sense, ought to hear the voices emerging from this cacophony of global trends and ask: ‘Is what I am doing fair? Is it sustainable? Is there a balance between my business, environment and society?’
In this era, business institutions are the most important shapers of our socioeconomic landscapes. Therefore, not only business but society and the environment should enjoy the value created by our business institutions. In Africa, the society in which business is embedded, of which business is a wholly-owned subsidiary, is a less developed society and requires of business an inclusive approach if the espoused theory of sustainability is to be authentically equal to the theory in practice.
The definition of pig, bull or bear becomes irrelevant, for now. Prof Willie Esterhuyse, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch, in a recent article (Leadership, 1 November 2012, p.8) responded to the philosophy of Adam Smith, the ‘founding guru’ of capitalism, by stating: “Business’ role will never, ever be purely economic. Adam Smith is dead. His dictum is dead… …Death will also be the predetermined outcome of enterprises and companies without a solid social responsibility and a (sic) ethical culture.”
Strategy ought to be the chosen response to what is happening in the environment. It signifies the CEO’s reading and understanding of the environment with subsequent choices made. The quality of strategy is heavily dependent on the quality (vision, courage, ethics, reality) of the leadership minds involved. There is value in considering Peter Koestenbaum’s words: ‘Greatness comes with recognising that your potential is limited only by how you choose, how you use your freedom, how resolute you are, how persistent you are – in short, by your attitude. And we are all free to choose our attitude.’ Who ought to occupy Maude Street? Maude Street ought to be occupied by great business leaders who passionately act as ‘generators of sustainable value for business and society at large and who work for an inclusive and sustainable global economy’. They lead institutions that made the shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world.