Economics, ethics and empathy: Why leaders are responsible for so much more than the P&L 

“If Scott Morrison was a CEO, would he still have his job?” A business leader posed this question to me recently, as criticism and confusion swirled around the PM’s ‘captain’s call’ to offer the AstraZeneca jab to all ages.  

With almost half of Australia’s population plunged into lockdown amidst a sluggish, sloppy vaccine roll-out, I could have quickly retorted, “No way!”. However, the more realistic response is, “It depends on the Board and culture of the organisation, and what metrics they use to evaluate performance.”   

The chief measurements used to assess the success of a chief are often black and white when it comes to profit and shareholder returns. But the appointments, dismissals and positions of CEOs and Boards are often murky when it comes to individual accountability for behaviour, culture or social issues.  

Over the last decade or so, the remit and responsibilities of organisations have grown well beyond delivering profit to shareholders. So why then do we still see a disconnect when it comes to attaching the broader scope of responsibility to where the buck stops? 

We know that Australian consumers, employees, communities and shareholders expect brands, organisations and their leaders to do, and say, more; to contribute beyond the bottom line.   

With institutional investors now looking to environmental, social and corporate governance reporting to inform investments, it appears demonstrating purpose in leadership has shifted from ‘progressive’ to ‘necessary’.  

Organisations who cannot demonstrate their worth beyond pure profits are in dangerous territory. And the same goes for our political leaders.   

But those who speak too quickly, without purpose, or whose actions are deemed to be ‘performative’ will also find themselves subject to Australia’s unforgiving ‘cancel culture’.   

So how do leaders catch-up with the growing expectations of Australians? They need to do, then tell.  

Leaders must seek to understand how their organisation’s purpose, values, operations and commitments overlay and interact with those of their stakeholders. They must hold themselves accountable to ensuring their own actions, behaviours and communication consistently reflects these commitments and expectations.  

Doing the work internally; whether addressing workplace culture issues, improving sustainability in the supply chain, or building a plan to safely reopen the country’s borders; must come before the external commentary, celebrations, or slogans.  

Most importantly, this remit has to sit with leadership. The work that needs to be done may take place across People and Culture, Operations and Marketing, but when it comes to accountability, the buck stops at the top.  

So, this brings me back to the question of the week, “If Scott Morrison was a CEO, would he still have his job?” If we were to judge him on what Australian investors, shareholders, employees, customers and communities are asking of businesses and brands, then I believe the answer would be a resounding, “No.”  

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