Australia has found itself as the canary in the coalmine to the world. The visual impact of a country on fire over the summer break has clearly snapped the world to attention. Many have seen our Government’s response to the national bushfire crisis as the devastating consequence of a series of failures to recognise, accept and predict the rising risk of climate change over the past two decades, and a lesson to the world that we are not getting this right.
Of course, our collective failure to address the most pressing issues of our time is not limited to government. Successive Royal Commissions over the last two-years have exposed the effect of the shortcomings of our largest institutions – banks, aged care facilities, disability service providers and religious institutions – to safeguard and protect the most vulnerable in our society.
Gaps in corporate governance have eroded social trust. What we are seeing is a growing disconnect between the promise of the brand of these corporations to the market; and how the community expects that promise to be fulfilled. Consumers are quite rightly questioning the capability and relevance of our major institutions to manage rising threats, and timing is everything.
For their part companies – particularly economically significant firms – are facing a range of simultaneous external pressures as a result of significant structural shifts across multiple dimensions. Just to compete, companies are having to constantly re-engineer business models that can best respond to changing spending patterns of consumers in an environment of low growth, high household debt and low inflation. Advancements in technology continue to transform industries and economies, providing both opportunity and the threat to consumer markets posed by mass workforce displacement if this economic transition is not managed well. Businesses are operating at a scale and speed not previously seen, adding a magnitude of complexity to the task of governing well for today and for the future.
Amongst this complexity consumers have a vital, real-time role to play in holding our institutions to account. There is no question that things need to change, and fundamentally. In the words of outgoing Westpac Chairman Lindsey Maxstead – “If we are not the organisation that we think we are…then we have to go back to scratch”.
There are two key attributes that enable a leader to be able to rise to this challenge. The first is connection. A leader needs to be able to understand the core needs of both the organisation’s people and their customers – what’s important to them and their expectations of the company. As we’ve seen from recent events, this understanding goes well beyond a set of numbers in a consumer or employee satisfaction report. Leaders earn trust by having honest conversations with their people and the public about what their company does, which means active listening to their people; the community it serves as well as the wider community in which the organisation operates.
Great leaders connect with the consumers of their company’s brand in a way that is real, human and purposeful. They share what they believe, communicate what they stand for and they back these things up with action. They do this in absolute harmony with the ethos of the organisation, and as an agent of change, to the point where the leader and brand become synonymous.
The second is consciousness. For the last several decades it seems we have made it easy for organisations, without thinking, to abrogate their leadership responsibility to the invisible hand of competitive markets by considering growth simply through the lens of increased shareholder wealth. What this has created is a kind of collective permission to turn a blind eye to the consequence of corporate action.
The issue here is not that singlemindedness is inherently flawed – companies indeed exist to generate value for its owners – but that it is irresponsible. It is no longer acceptable to pursue growth for growth’s sake. There is simply too much at stake.
Stepping into a leader’s shoes brings with it responsibility for daring to think. To exercise judgment from a basis of wisdom that can only come with experience coupled with acute awareness – of self, of relationships, and of their broader leadership context. It requires a leader to get involved. To deeply embrace the complexity of the leadership challenge wholeheartedly with courage, humility and the will to make their leadership count.
In short, we need conscious leaders that have dedicated time to building clarity and awareness of themselves and can bring themselves fully to the complexity of this challenge. We need boards and executive teams that continually nurture their collective conscious by ensuring they are bringing the full breadth of their experiences and expertise to the corporate challenge.
We are on the precipice of perhaps one of the most consequential points in world history. The leaders of this time – our time – will determine whether we succeed or fail the generations to come. Let’s ensure that our leaders have the wisdom they need to achieve what we need them to achieve.
By Gabrielle Schroder