Change is constant and accelerating. Technological change, including access to information, is democratising and altering the concept of leadership as well as the structure of society.
Anticipating and adapting well and quickly to such change is fundamental to successful leadership – whether in business or in politics.
But many of the requirements of modern leadership – as explained in the AFR BOSS Leadership Summit on Wednesday – would not have been even considered, let alone talked about, in boardrooms in previous decades.
Getting the “culture” right has now become synonymous with long term corporate success, for example. And these days culture is defined in terms of such attributes as humility, vulnerability, openness, inclusiveness, transparency, values, genuineness and trust as well as traditional favourites like strength, vision and courage in leadership.
The key, of course, is whether leaders and their businesses actually do what they say – or whether these professed qualities only demonstrate the gap between rhetoric and reality, particularly in terms of delivering customer service.
In an era of rampant social media, that gap can no longer be ignored whenever it seems convenient or whenever there is bad news. There is no longer any place to hide.
So despite the fact big business is increasingly distrusted by the community, it’s not surprising Australia’s smarter corporate leaders are so urgently focused on trying to rebuild that sense of trust and engagement – with the individuals in their own workforce as well as among their customers.
That’s certainly not an easy fix.
But it has also included, for many, expressing a view on broader issues of interest to the community – such as the same sex marriage debate – as part of engaging more closely with the society they are meant to serve.
Such expressions are still not popular with some politicians, however. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, an opponent of same sex marriage, famously insisted business leaders should “stick to their knitting”.
But for many chief executives, there’s no longer a simple distinction between what’s important to the community in terms of values, including their own employees, and the need to concentrate on a company’s bottom line.
AGL chief executive Andy Vesey, for example, told the summit it was not a big step for businesses to come out in support of same-sex marriage.
“I think they knew it was the right thing to do for their businesses, I think they knew we need that level of diversity,” he said. “It was something I was very comfortable doing, I just think it was business as usual” .
That only demonstrates, of course, how much “business as usual” has altered for companies. It has altered permanently for political parties too – although politicians seem to be having even more difficulty adapting to the change.
The parliamentary debate over the same-sex marriage bill will demonstrate, for example, how well significant social shifts can be managed through what is increasingly dismissed by voters as a dysfunctional political system.
Most business leaders, even the small minority who didn’t personally support a Yes vote, would be clear about the significance of the result.
The vote of the plebiscite is decisive with a 62 per cent Yes response from the 80 per cent of eligible voters who filled in their forms. Now it’s up to the parliament to efficiently legislate that community sentiment.
That process may be more painful than the jubilation over the plebiscite but there’s optimism everyone realises it needs to be done quickly.
Vesey, who’s had his share of political pain over AGL’s decision to shut down a coal fired power station in NSW, insisted it’s necessary to look through electoral cycles and see what is best for customers in the long term.
Sometimes, he conceded at the summit, this required “fortitude”.
“But if you know your facts, and you are doing the right thing, go for it.”
Not that the option of “doing the right thing” is always that clear in that murky intersection of business and politics.
Business leaders concede they can’t afford to have politicians defining the response to the different demands placed on companies.
In her address to the summit, Anna Bligh, chief executive of the Australian Bankers’ Association, cited the decline of trust in business, in government and the media as reflected in the Edelman survey.
But the problems of reputation and trust in the financial services industry have certainly attracted the most political attention – and the most inquiries – of any in the corporate sector.
One belated response from the banks is a new advertising campaign to try to explain their role in the community – naturally using ordinary employees rather than CEOs.
This includes emphasising that banks are owned by ordinary Australians with 80 per cent of profits distributed to shareholders – a fact little appreciated by most people apparently.
This is an obvious attempt to change the framework of a debate that has increasingly turned against the banks and their level of profits.
In part, Bligh argued, it is necessary because political leaders are no longer willing to stand up for “the economic place” of the banking industry, including the jobs it creates, the security it provides and the prosperity it facilitates.
Instead, according to the ABA, major parties are being pulled towards populist policies by political extremes.
How successful such a campaign will be in altering community attitudes is yet to be proven. One of Bligh’s other well used lines to her banking members is the warning that no campaign can work without being accompanied by evidence of major and consistent changes in behaviour .
“You can’t communicate your way out of a problem you behaved your way into,” she said.
Changing behaviour is real leadership – in business as in life.