‘Decent’ leadership is needed to restore trust and support those feeling left behind by globalisation argues Peter Tufano
The Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US have been seen by many commentators as a reaction to globalisation. How would you defend globalisation against its critics?
There’s a substantial discussion about globalisation these days, that’s manifested in the US elections and the Brexit vote, and in more. I think we have to get underneath that and understand what globalisation is all about. It’s a movement of goods from place to place; it’s a movement of people from place to place; it’s a movement of ideas from place to place. Different elements of globalisation I think do have different disruptive aspects, so clearly trade flows have given rise to some job dislocations, and we would be naïve not to acknowledge that. Those issues are being raised prominently, not only in political circles, but I think increasingly in economic circles as well; and we may have under-played, or perhaps under-responded to some of those dislocations, but clearly that’s an important thing.
Trade movements are not the only parts of globalisation: it’s also about movements of people, and there, obviously, the Brexit vote and the free movement question is critical. From the perspective of a School like ours, free movement is critical, in that what we want to do is create a community of people from all over the world; a community of people who can come to know one another and therefore get to know each other’s perspectives, point of view and values, and biases as well. That leads to the third thing; perhaps the most important thing in my mind as an academic and educator, which is the free flow of ideas. We cannot disrupt the free flow of ideas from place to place. The way that we are human, the way that we know what we know, the way that we test ourselves, the way that we improve ourselves, is by constantly taking what we believe, what we know, and confronting other facts, other people, other ideas. If the free flow of ideas becomes hampered in some important way, I suspect that we are all worse off. A caveat to that however is that this free flow of ideas has to be evidence-based, especially coming from academia. It’s critical that these thoughts that we have, this sharing that we have not be about false facts, but rather about evidence that can be documented, and we think it’s important that a universe like ours plays an important role in that process.
Globalisation HAS caused problems, such as job losses and affecting the speed and scale of change. How can leaders help mitigate these downsides? Or should we just accept that they're here to stay?
Globalisation has surely caused changes in the way that businesses operate; created some jobs and eliminated others. Globalisation and its close cousin, technology, are powerful forces in our economy. They change what we do, when we do it and how we do it. Whilst that’s true, we’re not passive in this process. We can in fact create structures and make management decisions that change how it is that we do the work that we do, where we do it, and how we do it, to be mindful of the human impacts of some of these forces. For example, as an academic, I’ve had co-authors across the world for most of my life. There are times when it is appealing to try to pass a paper from time zone to time zone, to work continuously on it. This however cuts dramatically into personal life, family life, and there are times that one just has to turn off. More importantly than the time zones for academics, is the creation of jobs. One of the things that we haven’t focused on so much is what are the enterprises that will in fact be job-creating in the future? It is a question that I think we can all ask, and it’s a question that we can all try to address. It’s interesting to think about who owns that question: is that a question that is primarily owned by governments, is it owned by businesses, is it owned by others? I think the answer is that it is owned by all of us. For example, in a project that I am working on right now, with the World Economic Forum, one of the questions that I have been consistently asking our group is: what type of entrepreneurial ventures are those that are most likely going to be job creating? Most of the time that we focus on entrepreneurship, we don’t necessarily focus on how entrepreneurship can create jobs, but in this particular instance we are trying to focus on that.
What sort of leadership do we need to respond to these issues?
In thinking about the leadership that we need today, many terms are being thrown around: responsive leadership, resilient leadership, authentic leadership. In my mind, I’ve been using a more old fashioned term: decent leadership. Decent is a word that was used six times more three centuries ago than it is now in printed materials. It is a word that has fallen out of favour. What I like about the word, apart from the history that it brings, is the fact that it has two meanings that are similar but not exactly the same. One, when we talk about something being decent, it’s about being enough, being adequate, making sure that it does the job. And in terms of leadership I think we have to make sure that, at a minimum, we have decent leadership; that we have leadership that gets the job done, that is effective. But decent also has a second meaning, and that meaning is about the set of values that are embodied in the actions that we take: that we act decently. There I think, bringing back this term of decent, and decency, and decently, is certainly timely at this point. The kinds of behaviours that we see by our leaders in all sorts of spheres do not reflect, in my humble opinion, the basic principles of decency, and I would like to think that we can uphold those principles, whether we are in 2017, or in 1817, as they reflect a set of values that I would hope that are more consistent than not over time.
Many business leaders claim to have 'got the message' about responsible leadership, but there are still hurdles to cross. Do you think changes are being made and how do we go from hot air to real action?
Business leaders, and others, have recognised the real issues around inequality, real issues around pay disparities, real issues around job losses. Recognising them and doing something about them are two separate things. The forces that propel businesses forward sometimes make it difficult to make the type of adjustments that are going to be necessary – and painful in some instances – in order to move forward. Having said that, I am heartened, perhaps because I tend to be an optimist, by looking at some of the firms that are taking positive action in order to address some of these issues; that are worried about people, planet and profit at the same time; that are doing things around the environment, that are committing to carbon control goals; that are trying to do things to improve the quality of life of their workforces; that are talking about basic questions on equality. I’m not saying that these problems will be solved easily or simply. I’m not saying that there is not a lot more work to be done, but I am saying is that there are very interesting, and I think hopeful shoots, that are coming up; that are demonstrating that the commitment to this set of activities is real. I was heartened by the climate change agreements that came into force last year, and the kind of strong private sector support for these goals. I am hoping that government policy continues their support as well.
What is the role of business schools, and especially Oxford Saïd, in making this change?
As a business school, we are in three businesses. We do research, we do teaching, and we convene people for important discussions against the backdrop of the issues that I have just been talking about: the issues about globalisation, about job losses, about climate change, about inequality. Clearly, business schools are not exempt from those discussions. If we take the three activities we do, what are the implications for us? In terms of research, it’s incumbent upon us that at least some of our research addresses some of these issues; perhaps directly, perhaps indirectly. So, for example, right now we are starting a new project where we are looking at how it is that certain classes of firms, family firms in particular, are addressing and embedding in their organisations the type of responses that give rise to long-lived reactions – whether it is to climate change or other things. So, the first thing that we have to do is that in some of our research, we need to address these issues. Secondly, we can’t be silent about these issues in the classroom. Therefore, we need to bring them up affirmatively – not just when students happen to bring them up – because we build them into the curriculum. One of the reasons that we run the Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford (or GOTO) platform, and the materials around that, is to make sure that, at least in part of our curriculum, we are making sure that these conversations, whether about demographic change, or about data privacy, or about natural resource constraints, or about the changes in the workplace, are part of our everyday conversation. And third, we can use our convening power in order to not only bring people together to have important conversations, but hopefully to animate those folks, so that they go off and do things. We recently had a meeting at the school where organisations from different parts of the world who are working on inclusive capitalism issues got together. And I was pleased to say that in at least part of that meeting, even though it is closed door, Chatham House rules ( I won’t disclose who was there or what they said), I saw opportunities for collaboration that took place because people got together at Oxford, and I was very heartened by that. So, if these issues are important, they have to be a part of our agenda. If they are part of our agenda, they have to show up in our research, teaching and convening. I’d like to think that is what we are doing at Oxford Saïd, and will continue to do that in the future.
In pursuit of inclusive capitalism: Business and approaches to systemic change