IMD International

Reflections on Charlie Hebdo

Jean-Pierre Lehmann on the case for business leadership in humanity

January 14, 2015

It was quite uplifting to see the recent demonstrations of support for the people murdered in Paris in connection with the Charlie Hebdo attack. The seventeen victims represented a cross-section of humanity. It was fitting therefore that the demonstrations of support should spread across the globe from Santiago de Chile to Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Social media can do a lot of harm by inciting hatred and violence, but can also create in real time, as happened on 11 January, an outpouring of global solidarity.

But now what?

At the outset it has to be said that evil, man's abysmal inhumanity to man, is perhaps not impossible to understand, but certainly very difficult. It operates at many scales. Europe will perhaps never come to terms with how our values permitted Nazism to reign. In Cambodia, the fanatical Khmer Rouge perpetrated genocide. Buddhists are massacring Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar. And now we have the terrible tragedies perpetrated by the fanatical forces of Islamist fundamentalism – from Peshawar to Paris.

Yet, if we cannot root out evil, we must prevent it from prevailing. As Edmund Burke's famous aphorism so well stated: "all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing".

There have been tremendous advances in recent decades. The open world we live in would have been unimaginable only twenty-six short years ago before the destruction (by good men and women) of the Berlin Wall. Yet much of the progress is in jeopardy, arising from widespread social discontent, blatant racist chauvinism, materialist greed and inequality. The three great contemporary strides – globalization, democracy and capitalism – are in great danger of retrogression. In other words, current trends see us moving towards less, rather than more, openness in our global space, societies, political systems and markets.

The paradox is that while business schools and corporations stress the importance of leadership, in reality, with some notable exceptions, there has been very little. Business in many societies tends not to have a good reputation. Enterprises, especially, but not exclusively, in finance, are seen more as hoarders and destroyers of wealth, rather than creators of wealth. Furthermore wealth is defined in purely material terms: in reality wealth can and should be social, cultural, environmental and spiritual.

What is needed is more humanity and to that end business must act and be seen to act.

One concept that business leaders and business school professors might apply is what my friend Pradeep Mehta calls the 10% citizen. All those of us who have the good fortune – and success in most cases lies considerably on fortune – should be prepared to give at least 10% back. Not 10% of our income. That's easy. But 10% of our lives, bringing the skills we have accumulated. Many do in fact undertake such actions, but they are insufficiently known and still far too few.

Rankings of MBA programs continue to include salary increase as a major criterion, but totally exclude contribution to society. There is every incentive for the schools that their alumni should do well, and who cares if they do good. In any case the good should not be at the expense of the well – otherwise rankings might tumble.

A role model can be drawn from Roland Decorvet (an IMD alumnus), who after a very successful career at Nestlé, until recently as CEO of Nestlé China, at the age of 49 left to take over as managing director of Africa Mercy Ships, which brings medicine, healing and hope to the poorest and sickest of the poor; many of whom would probably not be that sick were they not that poor.

Another role model is Jesper Hornberg (also an IMD alumnus), who used his engineering and management skills to co-found an enterprise GIVEWATTS dedicated to bringing electricity to remote rural villages in Kenya, thereby providing children the means to study and the hope to improve their lot.

There are of course many other examples.

But the point is that while on the one hand the evil of fanatical fundamentalist terrorism needs to be fought and rooted out, on the other we should all, especially those of us who have the professional skills and experience, be actively engaged in improving humanity and in reaching out to our fellow less fortunate human beings.

Stressing the importance of business arises from the lessons of history. During the 1930s as Nazism took hold of Germany, for the most part corporates sought to accommodate and adjust. This was true not only of German firms such as Siemens, or of Swiss banks, but also of American firms, including IBM, Ford. They were "Hitler's silent partners".

Oscar Schindler is credited with having saved the lives of about 1,200 Jews. This is a drop in the ocean –0.02%
compared to the six-million believed to have been killed. But what would have happened had there been a hundred Schindlers, or indeed a thousand?

"All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing". But to contain evil, we need lots and lots of good people. That should be the business and business school mindset and mission if we want the 21st century not to be a repeat of the 20th.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann will be joined by Roland Decorvet at a symposium to be held in Antananarivo, Madagascar (where Africa Mercy Ship is currently moored), on 2 February, which will be attended by a strong component of Malagasy youth, under the aegis of ISCAM and the Groupe Socota, on perspectives and models of socio-economic development. Currently 90% of the population of Madagascar live below the poverty line. 

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