Treating business and its leaders as one homogeneous species can be bad for CSR

It is easy to slip into generalities and use the terms “business” and “business leaders” when condemning any lax corporate behaviour. And thus imply it is the case for all business and all leaders. This treatment of leaders as one genotype and all business sectors as one big homogeneous species sharing the same attributes and features and capable of evolving at the same time and same pace is unhelpful.

Whilst there may be some companies and/or their leaders who have stumbled or failed, there are others who are making a credible effort and are changing their relationship for the better with society, their employees, the environment, their marketplace. Negating their work by tarring them with the same brush in generalities about business behaviour will not help bring about the change prevailing opinion calls for. We need an equal amount of space and voice for those that do get things right. Good spreads as well as the bad. Good teaches as much as the bad does.

My call for moving away from the generalities to specificities is not, however, about segregating business leaders into Black Hats (bad people) and White Hats (good people). No good will come of that. No, my contention is that we need to respect the fact that ‘business’ is a very heterogeneous species – differentiated by sectors, markets, cultures, life cycles, heritages and its stakeholders. Each sector and company is very different. We have companies that have been around for over hundred years, others who are few years old. There are some very long established sectors, others relatively new. We have very different types of organisational cultures and leadership styles. Some companies operate in very liberal regulatory and political environments; others do not. And so on. The devil of responsible behaviour is in the detail.

It is important that we take time to understand the differences to qualify our judgments about responsible business behaviour. Whilst it is important to debate upstream about the overall role of business in society and about the paramountcy of responsible behaviour, it is equally important to acknowledge the variety we see downstream in different sectors, companies and in business leaders in the way they individually and collectively respond to change. It is a fact that evolution is happening at a different pace and even in different directions. Some are ahead of others; some are better at it than others. Some started well, but have now become complacent and taken the eye off the ball; others keep pushing themselves and others to do better and do more.

The upside of taking this more differentiated approach is that we enrich our discussion about responsible business: we can look at it from the lens of a particular sector, market or culture – or even a group of people – to draw out the ideas, practices and lessons that can be passed on and shared more widely. It reinforces the good things good people do. It underscores the ‘survival of the fittest’ concept. It gets the viral – mutational and transmission – effect going.

And very importantly, when a company or a business leader transgresses in some way, we place it in the context of the sector or market in which it is operating (is it a rogue occurrence or is it something indigenous to the entire sector? ), or its historical performance (is it a recent aberration that is out of character or is this part of a long-established story?) or its leadership ( is this particular CEO’s/Board’s performance poor or is there a track record of poor decisions and actions?).

If we keep treating ‘business’ as a homogeneous species, then we will keep perpetuating distortions about it and its legitimate place in society. And do injustice to those business leaders and their teams who are really trying to change.

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