Trustees of the Earth

Business responsibility is not a new phrase. Everything that needed to be said about it has possibly already been said in many forums, several times over. Still, there is a gap between intent and action. CEOs say the right things all the time, yet companies continue to bypass every single responsibility paradigm. Why? What stops them from doing the right thing?

Responsibility is an abstract term. So are sustainability, ethics, CSR and values. Embracing responsibility means bringing change in the organisation. And change is never easy. It brings pain. It brings resistance. Change is also not a single event. It is a series of events, involving several things and the biggest of them involves emotions and the inherent human resistance to change. What will bridge this gap between intent and action? Do corporate incentives need to change? Do processes need to change? Do we need more transparency?

Given the scenario that we face, we need new ways of looking at things. One such lens is the concept of trusteeship proposed by Mahatma Gandhi. It specifies that everything we do must be economically viable as well as ethical—at the same time making sure we build sustainable livelihoods for all. When applied to the world of today, it defines the core values of a business which run through how the business needs to conduct itself. Perhaps we need to look back so that we can move forward. Some extensions of it’s core beliefs can be:

Leadership for the fourth industrial revolution has to be about mindfulness. It has to be about people. A new kind of leadership is needed that builds trust, is driven by values and is open to change. The leader has to be a trustee to all the stakeholders, rising above the stereotypes to decide what she will and will not do. As a trustee to the organisation, there is no exit strategy. The leader is responsible for the impact of her decisions. This could be food for thought for venture funded companies that are currently destroying business models without taking responsibility for the damages caused. Their current philosophy is: if we don’t do it someone else will. Perhaps it could it change to, ‘If it can be done, let’s do it right and take people along.’

There are no outsiders anymore. New ways of thinking and acting are required from all stakeholders, including individuals, business executives, social influencers and policy-makers. Deep, meaningful conversations and not just excel sheets hold the key to responsibility. This means thinking not just about what new perspectives might be needed, but finding entirely new ways to create and update our thinking over time in collaboration with other people in the industry, policy makers and customers themselves. The corporate brand needs to move from product attributes, smart logos and great TV advertisements into being more human, responsive and above all trustworthy.

Pro-active responsibility for an accelerating world. Current models of responsibility are mostly reactive. They seek to rectify damage to the environment and social systems. In a data-driven world, there is the potential to cause massive damage with far-reaching consequences. In the next few years existing systems and value chains will need a reboot not just in terms of finding newer markets and growth avenues, they will come under increasing regulatory and public pressure for transparency, trustworthiness and public good. We can’t any longer say, ‘Hey this is a new innovative product that will be loved by millions but there will be a few downstream issues. But, we needn’t look at them now, let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.’ Companies, reputations and lives will get destroyed with such short-term thinking. Trusteeship is about taking the higher ground, about getting the design right in the first place. Proactive is the default norm.

Business responsibility therefore needs a modern context. It needs to bring in the many connections and technology interchanges that really define the twenty-first century, as well as build frameworks that reflect the changing realities. If done right, responsibility for the modern world can define the boundaries of the corporation—and its very soul!

(Original Post)