|An Eruption of Vesuvius by Johann Christian Dahl, 1824 (public domain - The Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
It feels like we're at the beginning of a major inflection point.
What's the driver? My personal observation is that there has been too much malfeasance, ineptitude, and misconduct—in short, hypocrisy—on the part of many leaders, companies and government officials.
And the public has had enough.
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”
— Thomas Jefferson
Trust is the foundation of any relationship—friends, spouses, partners, employees, customers—all require trust for the relationship to work. If employees don't trust that you'll treat them well and pay them fairly, they'll walk. If a customer can't trust you to make a consistent product or to back up your claims, they'll find another entity selling something similar.
More forensically, as defined by Merriam-Webster, trust is: “reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”
Three of those words pop out to me:
There's a certain sense of the old-fashioned with them. Reliance: that you can count on someone to keep their word. Character: what someone stands for. Truth: dealing in honesty.
Those three traits used to be commonly held assumptions about people. I'm not sure exactly when, but such traditions seem to have escaped us.
Perhaps it has something to do with the digital world, and our ability to dehumanize so many of our transactions and interactions. Or perhaps the internet has amplified the negative aspects of our human nature.
When Business Roundtable updated its Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, it sent a signal. While there were some cynical views as to whether businesses could effectively hew to this new line, there was something of an expression of relief—that corporations recognize the need to do more than just make money.
This valiant campaign for simple doing the right thing has come at a time when we're beginning to see business-as-usual: public outcry or backlash is happening in a number of areas.
Where It's HappeningIn the last month or so, there have been stories in the news that are related to government, business, and leadership that encapsulate the sense of frustration mentioned above. Here are a few examples.
Fall WellJerry Falwell, Jr., the chancellor of Liberty University, is not a minister like his father, but his institution is an evangelical Christian university. That didn't stop Falwell from accumulating power, self-dealing, and intimidation. In "Someone's Gotta Tell the Freakin' Truth," one insider shared that the culture of fear is so great that people there “won’t rat him out,” but the authors of the article added: “That’s beginning to change.”
Unicorn FecesYou've heard about the WeWork prospectus and IPO (it was the topic of the essay in The Full Monty #278). It's been the topic of multiple pundits (such as @ProfGalloway, who coined the phrase "unicorn feces") and business publications, and has been under so much pressure that the valuation of the company dropped 75% over the past two weeks and now the IPO is delayed.
An East Wind ComingAs Hurricane Dorian approached the United States, the president misstated that it would hit Alabama ("with 95 percent chance probability") and then officials at NOAA, who had original corrected him, issued a statement to back him up—a political move from as scientific organization. But then NOAA's acting chief scientist slammed the agency for doing so.
Just Say NoJoi Ito resigned from M.I.T. after The New Yorker ran a piece on the M.I.T. Media Lab accepting donations from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Kara Swisher summed up the supposed moral dilemma of Ito and M.I.T. this way: "If you can't manage to say a hard no to a predator of young girls, I am not sure what to say." When Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig asserted there was nothing wrong with it as long as it was done anonymously, the internet came down on him.
Hold Up, PartnerGun violence has been in the news in a more acute way after back-to-back shootings in Dayton and El Paso. So much so that an unprecedented 145 CEOs called on Senate to pass common-sense bipartisan gun laws and Walmart decided to stop selling ammunition for assault-style rifles in its stores. In addition, NASCAR has gone so far as to turn down certain firearm ads for its programs.
When NASCAR and Walmart think things have gone too far, you know we're at an inflection point.
The first step for companies and other entities to take a new approach is to be honest with themselves and with their stakeholders.
Some pundits have called for brands to "take a stand" on societal and political issues, and some brands have done so. But to do so just for the sake of doing it is misguided; taking a stand has to be meaningful and have some kind of deeper significance.
For example, if Walmart made this decision a few years ago, it wouldn't have seemed appropriate. But after a horrific shooting happened in their store and affected their customers and associates, they had a moral obligation to consider this differently.
Ultimately, this is about standing up for what's right. We need integrity, and decent and moral leadership now more than ever, and it can come from any corner: business, religion, government, and more.
The Bible (one of those classic texts) sums up what's expected of us:
“admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak...examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”
— Thessolonians 5:14-21
Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, that kind of common sense is pure wisdom.
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