Only 'radical honesty' can rebuild trust in business, and save us from Green and Trump

Philip Green and Donald Trump are harbingers of a post-trust future that can only be avoided by a progressive revolution in business leadership.

by Robert Phillips
Last Updated: 25 Jul 2016

Just as Green has been called the unacceptable face of capitalism, so Donald Trump is the unacceptable face of modern politics. Yet the two men – and everything they represent – are deeply connected: the excesses of one a fertile breeding ground for the other.

We should not be surprised. Donald Trump (and on this side of the pond, Jeremy Corbyn too) are creatures of the age: post-truth populists, narcissistic demagogues (even if one is faking a ‘kinder, gentler’ air) who are seizing the moment for their own selfish ends.

But, if they are now machine-gunning the liberal elites with their venom and hostility to everyone/everything from the educated to the mainstream media, then it is the very same elites who have mostly supplied the ammunition – starting with a series of seismic behavioural failures in business.

The sad fiasco of the BHS pension funds is just the latest example. Bad business has now fused with a banality of politics and failed leadership across several decades to create the current toxic mess. Sir Philip is not the sole practitioner. For Green, read Ashley or Winterkorn, Goodwin or Skelling – CEOs and organisations who have sought profit maximisation over profit optimisation and failed to act in the long-term interests of citizens and society.

Sustained economic repression fuels political extremes. History is littered with the dis-enfranchised, economically dis-advantaged reaching desperate points of no return and finding succour in extremism and rebellion. Today it is amplified by a 24/7 media and networks that are faster to mobilise, with conspiracy theories quicker to spread and take poisonous root.

The warning signals were of course there but we chose to ignore them – too many in business seem to have learned little from the angry aftermath of the 2008 crisis.  They have failed to reform and repair the ever-widening schism between business, politics and civil society.

There can be little wonder why trust in business – let alone in politics – sits at such a fragile low. At the moment when we most needed to heal, too many opened the wounds wider instead.  We have descended from Obama’s messages of optimism and hope to Trump’s invective of fear and hate in under a decade. This is a metaphor for the world.

I have long argued for a new model of (public) leadership and and the importance of the accountability of business to the many, not the few: for more mutualised models of ownership and to provide real voice and participation for those who make our globalised economies work. Prime Minister Theresa May described this as building ‘a country that works for everyone’.  

The Occupy movement of the late noughties called ‘everyone’ the 99%. It failed to gain traction because of its inability to organise and mobilise – ultimately, to lead. That mobilisation is now underway not, as I had hoped, because an enlightened cadre of new business leaders saw the opportunity to become activists themselves and lead progressive social movements through business and workplace coalitions, but because their very failure to do so handed the opportunity to others instead – to Corbyn and Trump, Farage, Le Pen and Grillo – who have seized the moment with gusto.

Maybe this is what Theresa May is trying to tell us – business must urgently reform itself or see reform forced upon it: either by governments increasingly scared of the consequences of more bad behaviour on everything from pay to participation, or the by the governed, rising up in anger and revolt.

In my book Trust Me, PR is Dead, I optimistically called for CEOs to think and behave like social activists; to place citizens and society first; to co-produce their leadership for the common good; to consider the public value of their organisations and become accountable to the many, not the few. There have been a small number of heroic initiatives in this direction but, for the majority, we have sunk towards business as usual – too many bad corporate machines, invariably propped-up by clever communications and cleverer lawyers.

The need for business to step-up and lead - to drain the swamps of bad practice - is more urgent now than ever before. The fragility of trust, which so many bemoan, is in danger of breaking beyond repair and with it the social compact that binds us.  

A radical honesty is required – not just about what kind of business and society we want but about what it is we need to do to change for the better. The liberal elites - myself included - will do well not to fight popular anger with metropolitan anger of their own. Corbyn, Trump, even Brexit, are huge learning moments, where we need to listen hard and to understand better.

A huge collective effort is needed to re-unite business, politics and civil society.  A new generation of leaders needs to emerge. We cannot afford more Philip Greens. The unacceptable faces of capitalism will otherwise be steamrollered by faces in global politics that are more unacceptable still.

Robert Phillips is the co-founder of Jericho Chambers, author of Trust Me, PR is Dead (Unbound, 2015) and a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, London.


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