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Visionary Leaders versus Trump: How Business Can Profit from Ethical Leadership


Visionary Leaders versus Trump: How Business Can Profit from Ethical Leadership

by Laurent Corneile

Head of Technology

“Trump’s decision to pull out of Paris Agreement branded one of the worst foreign policy blunders in history” read the Independent. “Dismay as Trump signals exit from accord” was the BBC’s take. The Atlantic ran with “Did Donald Trump Just Make the Planet Hotter?” and wedged between pictures of the worst wedding cakes of all time and headlines stating that uncontrolled immigration is dangerous, the Mail Online managed a surprisingly telling “The world unites to condemn Trump”.

To recap: a few months ago the US became one of only three countries not to sign up to the Paris Agreement, a framework designed to combat the existential threat of global warming by reducing carbon emissions. The list of non-participating countries in full: The US, Syria, Nicaragua.

One of the key drivers for withdrawing from the agreement was that President Trump did not want “other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore” because he perceived the agreement to be a bad deal for the US, despite the 97% of actively publishing climate scientists who believe that the world is getting hotter because of human activities. Instead, Trump is on record claiming that global warming is a Chinese hoax or a lefty scam. Fortunately, the US’s formal exit can only occur in two years, at which point Trump may no longer be President.

For the many in the US who have decried Trump’s decision as unfathomable, there has been little political opposition. Centrists (and anyone to the left of right) have for some time blamed Republican Senators and Congressmen for their craven attitude towards the current West Wing occupant. As long as Republicans hold both chambers, Trump can do as he pleases despite the interminable imbroglios and early morning tweets.

So it is surprising to note that the group which in the past would have been least likely to voice any kind of opposition, is the group that has shouted the loudest (environmentalists apart). Business has found a voice, in the US at least.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, Space-X and the PayPal platform proceeded, at the time of Trump’s environmental bomb, to quit Trump’s conclavical “Business Council” in protest. Similarly, Robert Iger, CEO of Disney, withdrew from the group as a matter of principal, as did Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Satya Nadella, Jeff Immelt, Brad Smith and even Squid Vampire of the Universe Lloyd Blankfein, all publicly expressed consternation and deep disappointment at Trump’s decision. This is not to mention the statements issued by the leaders of many other corporate behemoths from Unilever to Google.

Perhaps it is a sign of our times that every leader with a few thousand Twitter followers feels compelled to provide running political commentary. Perhaps the need for public acclaim has gone to their heads. Perhaps.

Trump Farage Brexit Post-Truth Fake News

Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement has been met by criticism from Mark Zuckerberg,
Jeff Immelt, Paul Polman and Elon Musk amongst other business leaders

Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see that some leaders view their own organisations as agents for positive change. Sure, Elon Musk’s Tesla rides the environmental movement, so lowering carbon emissions is in his interest. But if environmental and sustainability issues are driving the next industrial opportunities, then big business and existentialism have entered a potentially amorous embrace.

Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE said it best: “Disappointed with today’s decision on the Paris Agreement. Climate change is real. Industry must now lead and not depend on government”; this is the nub of the argument because, if not business, then which other vector for change can we depend on? There doesn’t appear to be a May ’68 on the horizon. The Occupy movement fizzled out and political engagement in the under 30s is at its lowest ebb. In the UK and the US, partisanship is making government consensus on big, long term issues more difficult than ever.

At first blush, businesses seem to be the perfect incubators for social vigilantism. A successful organisation has the benefit of a well aligned group of individuals working to fulfil a set of objectives. Could the force multiplier that is alignment, not be used to slow down climate change if the by-product is profit? Yet, successful corporate vigilantism cannot rest on the shoulders of “visionary” leaders like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, or indeed the Silicon Valley cluster alone.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman is the poster boy for profit-by-trying-to-do-good-things-and-taking-a-long-term-view. In making sustainability central to Unilever’s value system and growth strategy, health benefits and environmental issues are coupled with hard financial metrics. The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is not simply a token CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiative in which a few staff hours a year are reluctantly given up to paint a fence or pick rubbish up from the nearby park; it is a strategy for sustainable business that enjoys superior rates of growth. There is absolutely no reason why, without courage, vision and interest, more business leaders could not adopt strategies that produce excellent shareholder return and have a positive social, political or environmental impact – and who knows, it may even help executives find a meaning to life that isn’t just ensuring that next quarter’s results are better than last quarter’s results.

There are many pitfalls in this reasoning. Businesses that proudly announce their stances on big ticket issues run the risk of alienating part of the clientèle. Moreover, strong pronouncements can test the very alignment of its workforce if staff members disagree, either globally or from a particular geographic location. These are risks, but if the issues being tackled are in the sphere of the environment and sustainability, apart from a handful of deniers, who doesn’t agree that something needs to be done to save our planet? In any case, the responsibility for Earth’s plight shouldn’t be left to the boss. IDG believes that Leadership and Followership are two sides of the same coin and ultimately, followers get the leaders they deserve. We should all lead, advise, support and manage upwards. Waiting for things to sort themselves out, won’t do.

Neo-Liberalism appears to be unravelling while the rate of technological change is speeding up. In a twist of fate, commercial organisations may well be the key to filling the leadership void left by governments who cannot keep up with the pace of change or who are unwilling to save humanity.

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