The political leader
Stephen Bungay, director, Ashridge Strategic Management Centre
During 2016, tensions in Western societies that have been simmering for years boiled over.
Global trends towards increasing free trade and free movement, inclusiveness and diversity, and a broader sharing of power and wealth, which were espoused as universal benefits, have been denounced for benefiting only a small global elite.
The enlightenment values behind those trends have been challenged. The non-elite, whose lives have become increasingly precarious and who see only hypocrisy and corruption among those in power, have uttered a howl of rage on both sides of the Atlantic.
With the credibility of politicians hitting new lows, the demagogues have stepped into the breach and replaced spin with brazen lies, political correctness with insults and intellectualising with the celebration of ignorance. The democratic institutions which held out against fascism and communism in the 20th century have been hollowed out, the centre is barely holding and social media, far from connecting everyone, has created enclaves of the like-minded who confirm each others’ prejudices and push them towards ever greater extremes.
With politicians in disarray, business leaders must fill the gap as leaders of society as well as of their enterprises. They must acknowledge the anger of large swathes of the population, expand their notions of inclusiveness and diversity to cover the dispossessed and the fearful, take visible action to address inequality, articulate the benefits of wealth creation to address the emotions and values of the many, and deploy technology to solve social problems not create new ones.
Enlightenment often begins with shock and pain. If we can recover from that to find new moral and intellectual honesty, we can usher in a new enlightenment and reinvigorate the values of the old one. We all have a role to play.