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When political leadership fails us, business leaders step in and step up.

Earlier in the year, following the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, I wrote a piece expressing my concerns of current political leadership, specifically that of US President Donald Trump.

As a reminder, the theme of the Davos summit was Responsive and Responsible Leadership.

WEF Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab defines ‘responsive leadership’ as recognising the increasing frustrations and discontent amongst those not experiencing economic development and social progress.

As I have stated previously, if ever there was a time for leaders to act more responsively and responsibly, the time is now. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States represent significant disrupters to our cultural, political and business landscapes.

What these tectonic shifts represent is nothing short of a failure of existing political leaders to address the growing frustrations and discontent amongst many voters across Western democracies.

Of course one should never look to over simplify the connections between what are in reality two very distinct events. That said there are a number of obvious themes:

  1. Both the Brexit campaign and the Trump campaign engaged in a politics of immigration and hate (i.e. Let’s hate the immigrants), to appeal to voters’ fears of declining industries and perceived job losses;
  2. Ironically both Trump and Farage played on their own status as (political) outsiders to demonise already outsider and marginalised groups;
  3. Both campaigns were anti-diversity in nature, playing into the psychology of ‘it’s all gone too far’ accompanied by a mantra of ‘Britain First’ / ‘America First’.

Whilst on a recent trip to the US, Trump’s absolute lack of responsible and responsive leadership again hit home with his insistence that there was hatred “on many sides” comment, in response to the neo-Nazis rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of 3 people. Thus instead of taking an opportunity to challenge his critics by immediately and unreservingly calling out and denouncing the racial hatred he in-fact provided tacit support to the Alt-Right, KKK and other Far Right groups. In doing so, he sent a powerful message to America’s non-White communities that he is a leader for the few, not the many.

In this context he not only lost any opportunity to become the inclusive leader, his actions and Twitter comments showed a complete lack of moral leadership. Indeed a number of top US Rabbis released a statement criticising Trump, stating that they had concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville where so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that they would be breaking with tradition by not holding their annual conference call with the President.

When Politian’s fail, business leaders must step in

So as Trump continues with his anti-diversity narrative today’s global business leaders are presented with a number of key challenges. What role should business leaders play within this current climate to counter the ‘alternative facts’ of Trump? What does ‘responsive leadership’ look like within this context?

Acting responsively and responsibly to the ‘America First’ rhetoric requires business leaders now more than ever to challenge the implications of this and to proactively think and act inclusively. In response to Trump’s lack of leadership a number of CEOs of US corporations did indeed speak out. Apple’s Tim Cook took to Twitter arguing that this was a moral issue that was an affront to America. Goldman Sachs’ Llloyd Blankfein quoted Abraham Lincoln, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals quit Trump’s Manufacturing Council. Three others followed including the CEOs of Intel and Under Armour.

In doing so, not only did these Corporate leaders fill a leadership void left by Trump, they also sent a powerful message to their diverse employees and customers. It was a responsible and responsive message that in many forms simply said, we hear you, we care and we will act.

As stressed by Tony Baron in The Art of Servant Leadership, the world economy demands an alternative way of doing business and workers demand responsible leadership. Tim Cook and others are showing us the way. They are in-fact demonstrating the principles of inclusive leadership, which for me means showing empathy, awareness of others’ feeling and commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Inclusive leadership requires a questioning mindset and the courage to challenge when others are either silence or colluding with discrimination.

Finally, questions for today’s business leaders around responsible leadership include, are you aware of how you show up to others? Do you actively challenge bias and outright discriminatory thinking and decision-making? How do you work to move outside of your comfort zone and connect with your frustrated and disconnected work populations? How do you see insider / outsider dynamics play out in your organisations? Are you brave enough to stand up, stand out and challenge the status quo? Are you responding responsibly whilst those around you may be doing otherwise?

Dan Robertson is the Director of Vercida Consulting.com – The Global Diversity and Inclusion Company. He is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity and inclusion management, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. You can contact Dan on LinkedIn: Dan Robertson or Twitter: @dan_robertson1 or email: Dan@Vercidaconsulting.com

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