Do the best you can, until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.
– Maya Angelou
Capitalism has failed our people. If you have hundreds of thousands of children living in homes without enough to survive, that’s a blatant failure. What else could you describe it as?
– Jacinda Ardern
Bold, unapologetic, uncowering – ready to rail against the status quo and raise what civil rights leader John Lewis called “good trouble”.
Angelou – the brash, daring performer – a showgirl in the best possible sense of the word, who wielded her many talents and faces like lightsabers: writer, actress, dancer, civil rights activist, poet. The Amazonian wordsmith, who belted out steamy Calypso torch songs while her pen bled searing, bone-rattling prose that stirred a generation of young women – and men – into angry protest and revolution, demanded a world that was not only more just, but kinder, gentler, #better.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
Image source: Photo by Jack B on Unsplash
On the other side of the globe, the other side of the social spectrum, a similar tide swells. Ardern – a young, idealistic politician, stridently socialist – became the youngest female head of state when she was elected prime minister of New Zealand at just 37.
Though a rising star within her own party, Ardern has been an unexpected changemaker, scrabbling into the Prime Minister’s office by forming an unlikely minority coalition government after her party won 10 seats fewer than their main political opposition. And yet, her short tenure (October 26, 2020 marks only her third anniversary in office) has had a seismic impact, both domestically and on the world stage.
At home, she has won praise and admiration for pushing a sweeping social agenda that focuses on solving New Zealand’s housing crisis and tackling child poverty and social inequality. Internationally, she has demonstrated a proclivity for punching way above her weight: In January 2019, less than 18 months into her term, she was sharing a World Economic Forum stage with Al Gore and Sir David Attenborough, telling world leaders at Davos to “get on the right side of history, and embrace guardianship of the earth”.
New Zealand, she said – to a flutter of bemusement from less idealistic leaders – would lead the charge by introducing a wellbeing budget – a political and economic blueprint that wasn’t just about growth for growth’s sake, but which would prioritise kindness, empathy, and the social and mental wellbeing of its citizens.
Born at opposite ends of the world, into different generations, different social structures and different racial constructs, Maya Angelou and Jacinda Ardern could not be more dissimilar. And yet, at the tail end of a cataclysmic year, with uncertainty and upheaval our new normal, their fierce refusal to accept the unacceptable is the message for our moment.
Because what we need right now, is a good deal of good trouble.
COVID-19 has ushered in so many new normals, so many forced adjustments and re-alignments, that the concept of normal – any kind of normal – seems increasingly archaic. If normal changes from payday to payday, or from one quarterly forecast to the next, is normal still a valid concept? Does it serve any purpose at all? Yes.
As mindfulness guru Amy Rubin argues: Just because it’s the norm, doesn’t mean it’s normal. Conversely, normal isn’t always the norm. Hunger, homelessness, disappearing icebergs and receding rain forests have become the norms for our planet. But it is not normal. And as much as we have become accustomed to it, or skilled in turning a blind eye, the systemic problems eroding our societies, our workplaces, and our families are not acceptable.
They are not normal.
For all its devastation, COVID-19 bears some gifts. One of these has been a renewed sense of who we really are. In the first few days and weeks after national lockdown, South Africans – stunned into unimaginable stasis – marvelled as the smog clouds lifted from Gauteng skies, congestion disappeared, and we all suddenly had the time to sit down for family meals.
The world seemed truly changed
The 2020 World Economic Forum – where Jacinda Ardern had elicited eye-rolling a year earlier with her wellbeing budget – was convened under theme “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World”, with world leaders being urged to plot new pathways to “stakeholder capitalism”.
Though not new, stakeholder capitalism had, until recently, been somewhat of a fringe philosophy – an idealistic vision of the world in which corporate leaders assumed responsibility not only for their shareholders – but for the totality of the spheres in which they operated. In this philosophy (the inspiration behind Ardern’s kinder, gentler government) leaders were supposed to be architects of long-term wellbeing, responsible for the social, mental and economic welfare of all their stakeholders – staff, customers, clients, their communities at large – rather than pursuing the quarter-by-quarter financial interests of a handful of shareholders.
As we huddled together in the early days of COVID-19, it seemed that this kinder, gentler world had indeed arrived. Shaken by global catastrophe, the world around us shrank to what seemed, perhaps for the first time, a global village. We mourned collectively for the deaths in Italy and beyond, and railed against the missteps in the US and UK.
Stakeholder capitalism – a kinder, gentler form of leadership – was soon revealed to be the mirage critics and cynics had predicted it would be. Our marvel at disappearing smog clouds turned to disbelief, then rage, at the instinctive profiteering, bilking and fraud that erupted almost immediately, eclipsed only by the legions of people retrenched or enduring unpaid layoffs. In many instances, the culprits were opportunistic, unscrupulous individuals. But all too often, it was opportunistic, unscrupulous organisations – businesses headed by the very leaders stakeholder capitalism promised us would be the architects of this new normal of societal wellbeing. If ever we needed gentler stewardship, it was during a global pandemic. But COVID-19 revealed some of our largest, most admired corporations to be every inch as shareholder- and dividend-driven as ever.
As a transformative business philosophy that ushers in a new era of better, stakeholder capitalism risks being dead on arrival because we, the stakeholders, have proven unwilling or unable to stir up the sort of good trouble to which Maya Angelou and Jacinda Ardern have called us.
Kinder, gentler corporations are failing to materialise because we expect a kinder, gentler mindset to ignite organically in our boardrooms, and for the benefits of this new us paradigm to spontaneously trickle down from our C-suites to the areas where societal and economic change is needed most.
This will not happen. It cannot. Stakeholder capitalism – and the trust and sustainable shared value it promises – can only succeed if you and I – the stakeholders of Earth Inc. – drive it, claim it, and agitate for it. We must cause the good trouble of demanding more and refusing to settle for less. We must hold corporate and political leaders’ feet to the fire. And where there aren’t enough fires, we must start lighting our own.
As Maya Angelou famously said:
Image of Maya: www.stillharbor.org
Our planet, our country, and our communities are calling out for responsible stewardship. Our stewards are proving unequal to the task. It’s time to light some fires and grab some lapels.