Re-reading James Breiding in the Wall Street Journal on ‘The Unbearable Vanity of Davos’, I was reminded of a first encounter with the cartoonist Hugh MacLeod: ‘Change the world or go home’ was his ‘Blue Monster’ message to Microsoft in 2006. ‘Microsoft’, MacLeod later confided to authors David Brain and Martin Thomas, ‘is in the world-changing business. If they ever lose that, they might as well go home.’
‘There is nothing more top down than trying to lead the world from high up a mountain’, The Economist’s Matthew Bishop wryly noted pre-Davos, alongside his commentary on the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer findings that the world no longer trusts the hierarchy of business leaders (still less, politicians), to ‘do the right thing’. The prevailing crisis of trust is a crisis of leadership. Instinctively and statistically, global leaders in business and politics alike are failing to lead, while much of the world remains in social and economic turmoil. Odd, perhaps, that all this talk of ‘resilient dynamism’ (or was it ‘dynamic resilience’?) was happening concurrently with Lord Stern’s observations that he may have got his initial thoughts on climate change wrong and that the situation could be far worse than he/ we had initially feared. Davos parties while the planet burns. We remain steadfastly on the road to, not from, ruin.
There is, of course, always a certain comfort in networking among peers – a re-affirmation of our own values and our rooted connection as humans: we seek out and share with those of like-mind and similar ambition. But maybe within such networks lies a concentration of our own prejudices also – and, among said global leaders, an easy conceit of hand-wringing inaction. Indeed, we immediately assume that today’s networks must always advance shared interests (that is certainly the Cluetrain and Porter/ Kramer thrust) but maybe such assumptions are occasionally naive and/ or even false. More worryingly, maybe those same, shared, human interests do not align with the needs of humanity beyond? As Breiding notes, ‘Davos is (instead) a monument to man’s need for self-actualization… a license to pretend’. Davos delegates may have thus found comfort and security in the company of like-minded souls, but – by once again failing to turn so many words into real actions – they stand merely to further erode trust and instead penalize us all with the huge opportunity cost for transformation and transition of the real world beyond their Alpine retreat. There is a recidivist pattern here – substitute Rio+20 or Copenhagen for Davos and you get the picture.
Engaged and committed citizens must beware the continued advancement of this ‘license to pretend’ and challenge it every day. The real imperative is to identify and support those whose networks are properly committed to the license to lead the world towards a better, more sustainable and more equitable place. We are in danger otherwise of co-conspiring in and supporting the triumph of privileged human needs over the urgent needs of humanity. Active participation and vociferous accountability is key. The elites that celebrate their own selves at Davos and elsewhere will never disappear, but nor can we, as citizens, afford for them to so consistently fail us. Business and political leaders should be entrusted to address the great issues of our time: from youth unemployment and income inequality, to pressing concerns of food, water and energy security and the need to feed nine billion mouths by 2050. They must be held accountable for this – or otherwise, in McCloud’s words, ‘go home’. Leadership must pass the five tests of trust and enshrine, protect and promote the common good. Words are not enough and engaged citizens, through our own networks and petitions, must drive accountability and results, whether in business (through the brands we buy or the shares we hold) or politics. Every vote counts.
‘We have to be here because everybody else is here’ may be the sad truth and realpolitik. But it is not enough. ‘We have to be here because we want to effect change’. Concrete actions, not loosely traded words, represent the first steps towards the restoration of trust and the re-discovery of leadership. The political and business leaders of Davos are in a legitimate place to change the world (and then they can go home). But, right now, another year has passed and another opportunity has been sorely missed. The world cannot afford to go on like this.