Our world needs business leadership with a conscience

Emmanuel Faber

Chief Operating Officer of Danone

In late 2005, as we were starting our Grameen-Danone social business, Muhammad Yunus took us to a village near Dhaka in Bangladesh. Our goal was to fight child malnutrition in rural areas. We were there to meet local women and discuss Shokti Doi, a yoghurt fortified with nutrients, which we planned to start producing locally. Shaded from the sun by a corrugated roof on four wooden pillars, about 30 women in multi-coloured saris sat and listened to what Yunus had to say, and his brief introduction of us. After a silence, a woman rose to her feet. ‘Hello, my name is Yamina. I make mishti doi (a traditional form of yoghurt) with milk from my neighbour, who has a cow. In exchange for the milk, I look after her young children together with my own because she has to go and work in the fields. If I buy Shokti Doi, I won’t want my neighbour’s milk: how will she look after her children?’

This question came as a shock to me and remains the most difficult business question I have ever been asked: ultimately, how do I account for the consequences that my everyday business dealings have on others, on society, and on my business competitors, even those as small as a local producer of yoghurt?

Big Business understood long ago that it had to talk about ‘sharing value’ to protect its licence to operate. ‘Shared value’ is even one of the musts of modern business and therefore the widely used sentence ‘we are proud to serve our clients and the broader community’ inevitably appears on the front page of any decent annual report of a Fortune500 company. But in 20 years, I have found that taking this issue too seriously can be seen as a dangerous utopia — after all, shouldn’t business be the only business of business?

But what does business actually mean? ‘Win-win’ agreements are easy to conceive: they have long been the basis of any good sales pitch. Ensuring mutuality and shared benefit between a business and supplier seems obvious when limited to contractual arrangements. What is far harder is embracing the interests of Yamina’s neighbour, and indeed all those who are not sitting around the negotiating table of negotiation, in a more holistic manner.

“Ultimately, how do I account for the consequences that my everyday business dealings have on others, on society, and on my business competitors?”

Through a prejudiced reading of Adam Smith, we collectively embraced the principle of selfishness to drive the economy. We hoped and prayed that the ‘invisible hand’ existed (although nobody had ever seen it). Individuals, and the organisations they led, practiced the principles of ‘profit maximisation’, enabling them to rise to power and dominate the world economy. Business then spent the last five decades, and billions of dollars, on political lobbying, financing chairs of the world’s best business schools, funding think tanks, visiting Davos and other influential policy forums, all to make the case for deregulation, championing the existence of the invisible hand and (believe it or not) the ability of economic actors to self-regulate. What a farce! How can you seriously expect self-regulation when you force ‘good governance’ to mean aligning all business and finance leaders on the principle of profit maximisation? Are they really economic leaders? Aren’t they actually economic predators?

The word ‘economy’ derives from a combination of the Greek words oikos and nomia, meaning, ‘the care for our common home; the art of living together’. Yamina remembered this. But we, the leaders of business, finance, politics, have put own personal appetites for success first. Our greed and fears mean we make small compromises every day, close our eyes, shut our minds and hearts to the most essential questions. It is only once we have banked more money than any one man could ever spend in his lifetime that we turn to society and ‘give back’, and even then only provided our name appears somewhere. It is only once we are retired that we turn our attention to resolving the social problems our generation of business leaders helped to create.

Let’s face it – in many business decisions, we reduce human beings to simple economic factors in production and consumption patterns. We have not even heard or listened to Yamina’s question – what about my neighbour? Prisoners shot at dawn are blindfolded to avoid them staring at the soldiers’ consciences, which allow them to fire. The same applies to any human being. We can try to look away, but ultimately our own consciences are facing us – it is they that make us human.

“There is no invisible hand. The only hands that exist and shape the world, that give and take, that harm or heal, are my hands, and those of my neighbour”

And as a business leader, I am not prisoner of a system – the system is our own creation and we are not bound by a set of invisible rules. Ultimately, there is no finance goddess that takes care of the collateral damage caused by my business dealings that contribute, day by day, to my personal wealth, power or status. There is no invisible hand. The only hands that exist and shape the world, that give and take, that harm or heal, are my hands, and those of my neighbour.

This selfish economy we have created poses a bleak future. How can development or growth be sustainable if it is not fair? How can we ban gratuity from our business dealings? Only if we accept the risk of opening them to our fundamental questions about life and existence, about our own humanity as we share it with others in an invisible flux, will we empower people to grow in and around our organisations as human beings and not only as falsely rational, supposedly efficient managers.

Yes, we will have more sleepless nights, but this is the price to pay for freedom. It is so easy to become prisoners of our own status. But we deserve more than this. The people that we lead deserve more than this. Our world deserves more than this, and desperately needs us to be bold in our leadership. Let’s now close our eyes, take a deep breath and ask this question: what is ultimately more important: my stock-options plan or the future of Yamina’s neighbour and her children?