Can business leaders say what they stand for?

By Rehan Khan. Published in The National on 29th January 2010. A series of unfortunate events have made me question whether business leaders around the world actually know what they stand for.

First, the look on the face of Timothy Geithner, the US treasury secretary, as President Barack Obama shocked the markets last week with proposals to radically curb the power of financial institutions. Mr Geithner looked like a little boy who had been told to shut up and eat his greens.

For the “yes we can” grass-roots movement that took Mr Obama to the White House, this was at last a defining moment in his presidency. Here was a clear leadership position that was a stand against excesses in the financial system. Or was it merely populist posturing after the Democrats had lost the vacant Senate seat for Massachusetts earlier in the week?

Second, I attended a seminar where another set of leaders, the creme de la creme of the private equity industry had gathered. To my utter surprise, they collectively spoke out against greed. Once more it was a clear leadership position. They were standing against something, and so were also standing for something: greater prudence and a more sustainable approach to investment behaviour. Speaking to their front-line deal makers later, I did not get the impression that the message had got through. Nor was their compensation plan geared for anything but being greedy.

Finally, last week also saw the Fairtrade Foundation begin urgent talks with executives at Cadbury. The foundation feared new leadership from Kraft would result in an abandonment of Cadbury’s commitment to expand its sourcing of cocoa beans through the fair trade system, beyond just its Dairy Milk range. Todd Stitzer, the chief executive of Cadbury, spoke out last September against heavily indebted firms for their “unbridled” capitalism. Without naming it, he was by all accounts referring to Kraft. But, alas, his stand has changed and he is not saying much about fair trade any more. Perhaps the change is due to the £12 million (Dh71.2m) he is reportedly pocketing from the sale of Cadbury to Kraft.

All three examples testify to the uncertain business environment we live in. How much regulation should be imposed on the financial markets? Is greed necessary for growth in certain industries? Why bother with fair trade if it doesn’t improve the bottom line?

All three of these unfortunate events also testify that those at the forefront of their fields really have not got a clue about the most basic question: what do they stand for?

It seems to me that most leaders and organisations are doing a considerable amount of soul-searching these days. Like Douglas Adams’s hero in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, they seem to be searching for the meaning of life.

This confusion actually creates a unique space and time horizon for this region to stand up and be counted. The success of the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi last week is part of the awakening and emergence of a new-found confidence.

In the UAE and the wider GCC, “care” and “conservation” are two core values that traditionally have permeated all aspects of society and culture. They have been ingrained in communities from time immemorial.

Care is derived from holding together family and tribe so that all benefit and prosper together. Conservation is rooted in the innate need of inhabitants of the desert to carefully manage the resources around them, such as water and agriculture.

If we apply the values of care and conservation to leadership models, care translates into leaders creating collaborative work teams in which everyone has a stake in success and all are treated as family. Likewise, conservation applied in a leadership model manifests itself in leaders who create a sustainable business model that takes a holistic view from the perspective of all stakeholders: investors, community, employees and the environment.

These core values came up in a conversation I had with John O’Brien, the managing director of Mosaic, one of the businesses in the community charities under the patronage of the prince of Wales. Mr O’Brien was in the region last week recruiting for a leadership summit that Mosaic is holding in July at Cambridge University. There are 12 places open for GCC nationals. He explained that Mosaic places care for the environment and conservation high on the business agenda.

I asked Mr O’Brien why Mosaic was focusing on leadership. “We believe leadership takes many forms which are often culturally related,” he said. “Sometimes when cultures and individuals come together, differences in behaviours and styles can lead to misunderstanding.

Therefore as part of our desire to address misunderstandings, we have focused our interest around illustrating different leadership examples, against a backdrop of key global issues that should concern us all such as poverty and the environment. We do not profess to say that one ‘style’ is preferred; we indeed hope people can learn to recognise leadership in its different forms and value it accordingly.”

Mosaic is creating a platform for dynamic young leaders to come together and develop new leadership paradigms; the goal being to solve local problems through the sharing of best practice. It is an exciting forum for GCC nationals to frame their leadership values – to test, augment and refine them with other leaders.

On the wider business front, a number of broken companies and dysfunctional organisations are also looking for new leadership. These present a perfect opportunity for companies based in the UAE to demonstrate a difference that is based on the core values of care and conservation – values that are likely to create good outcomes for all involved.