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The Quick & Dirty: You Can’t Lead from the Middle

Henk Campher
| Monday June 9th, 2014 | 0 Comments

327939900_a752bcfdc5_zBy Henk Campher

I know, it’s been a while. Too many conferences and a book thrown in the mix too. Plug here – “Creating a Sustainable Brand.” The good news is that enough has happened since my last post to write a whole series of Quick & Dirty’s… This world of sustainability just doesn’t let up. And while many business continue to inspire me, just as many continue to make me perspire.

Two articles that stood out tackled an issue that continues to baffle me — the lack of true leadership amongst businesses. The first article tackled the lack of movement by companies on reporting on conflict minerals and the second dealt with how the lack of ethics can doom capitalism. Both of these highlights a common issue in the business world — the lack of leadership and the impact on how society views business.

We’ve seen trust in business continue to drop radically. Businesses are blamed for every ill in the world — from climate change; to corruption; to child labor; to chemicals in our food and clothes; to lack of transparency around GMOs and every other ingredient; to [fill in the blank]. Yes, it seems unfair that business gets targeted, but is it really that unfair? Do business show true leadership on these issues, or do they dance around the tough challenges?

Let’s take climate change for example. If your business depends on cocoa, coffee, cotton, tea or any similar commodity, then your business is materially threatened by the current and future impact of climate change. Two-thirds of coffee will be wiped out by a 3 degrees Celsius rise, and new diseases, thanks to climate change, are already threatening the coffee in South America. It is great when companies speak out on climate change, but it is simply not good enough anymore. It is like speaking out against war but not being willing to speak out against the perpetrators. Business leaders must show they are lead-ers by speaking out against those who are fighting those trying to do something about climate change and speak out against those who are the major contributors to climate change.

Businesses have for too long huddled together and refused to speak out against other businesses. This laager mentality is of no use or benefit to society at all. Why should society trust you when you do not side with them but instead side with those who do not even have your interest at heart?

If you are in the coffee, cocoa, tea or cotton business, then you should publicly speak out against companies and individuals who support the Heartland Institute because they materially threaten your business. They have nothing in common with you except for a piece of paper that says you are more or less structured the same way because of legal requirements. I am legally structured the same way as bigots, racists and homophobes, but it will not prevent me from calling them out in public and speaking out. If business wants to be treated as a member of society then it needs to act in a way that shows it cares about society and shares the same values as society.

And your business is threatened by these businesses. They are actively working to hurt your business. It might not be their main goal, but the impact of their work is a direct threat to the ability of you to operate as a business in future. Businesses owe it to themselves, their consumers, their employees and, more importantly, their shareholders to speak out against any group or individual who threatens their business. So why so quiet on climate change?

Yes, BICEP is great and having progressive policies in place is a great start, but it is simply not good enough. What is needed is for business to stand up and to say, “Hey Mr. Koch, with due respect, you are not my friend. Your policies and actions are hurting my business, and you are therefore my enemy.” Sounds like asking a lot, right? Not really. Shareholders expect business to stand up against those who threaten their business, but they seem to have a tough time when those people also call themselves business people.

The impact of this goes beyond shareholders though. Businesses cannot expect to be treated as a valuable member of society if they don’t stand up for what is important to society. Most businesses want to stand somewhere in the middle between what is in the interest of society and what the extremists in business stand for — climate change denial, executive pay disconnected from reality, against affordable healthcare for the masses, data hogging and privacy confusion, and every other issue where the interest of society is in contrast to the interest of a select group of businesses and/or individuals.

Sorry but you can’t lead from the middle. If you want to be a business leader then you need to lead and speak out.

So when you fight reporting on conflict minerals or GMOs or chemicals or calories or sugar or whatever, then society will trust you less. When you stay quiet on executive pay or climate change or political funding or gay marriages, then they see you taking sides, and the side you picked wasn’t theirs.

Look, I don’t always know what is right or what is wrong. Take GMOs for example — we are a long, long way from knowing what the positive or negative impact might be. The potential for it to do good in the world is enormous. I’m leaning towards being a supporter rather than a scaremonger as it is in my nature to be progressive — emphasis on progress. However, what I do know is that people have the right to know what is in their products. That is what sustainability is all about — brutal, honest transparency about how a product is made and the impact of that product: the good, the bad, the ugly and the unknown. I can’t get around that.

No one said being in business is easy. It is even tougher to be a leader. Sometimes it demands taking action and speaking out on tough, tough issues. And the businesses who dare to speak out are the ones people love, support, protect, buy and defend because they believe that business is one of them. And we always speak out and act in favor of those we love and see as part of us. Question is: Do you?

Image credit: Flickr/hamed

A series of quick & dirty opinion pieces by Henk Campher. Senior Vice President, Business + Social Purpose and Managing Director of Sustainability at Edelman (www.edelman.com) out in the Wild West of San Francisco.  Disrupter of purpose. Engineer of big ideas. Slayer of myths. Social media junkie – @angryafrican. He never wears ties. Ever. But always wears an accent with a strategy and opinion in his back pocket. Please note this series will not focus on individual companies and any reference is purely to provide color commentary. His new book, Creating a Sustainable Brand is available here.

Follow Henk Campher on Twitter.


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