angus ceo column

As a nation and in every sector of the economy we are facing a test of leadership. We are overwhelmed by challenges: a global healthcare crisis, rebuilding communities after the recent bushfire season, supporting communities still managing drought, addressing the impact of climate change, and an economy under pressure.

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer once again paints a bleak picture of the community’s faith in our ability to meet these challenges. Our institutions are once again more distrusted than trusted. The community does not see any sector as both ethical and competent. Business is competent, but not ethical; not-for-profits are ethical, but not competent; and government and media are neither. Rebuilding trust will be a collective success or failure.

As Edelman Australia CEO Michelle Hutton urged at the Australian Governance Summit (AGS) in March, “It is time to act.”

Each of these challenges requires us to balance our immediate actions with a long-term strategy and to calibrate our responses accordingly. We must act to confront the immediate challenge of re-establishing trust in our capacity to manage donations, provide care and security for the vulnerable, ensure a safe environment for workers and customers, and deliver long-term value and returns for the community’s savings and investments. We must act to confront the long-term challenges in our economy and climate.

As Richard Goyder AO FAICD, Qantas and Woodside chair, said at the AGS, “Leaders lead.”

Success requires the community to act together and leadership to build that cohesion. Focusing on division and the interests of specific groups over the welfare and prosperity of our community is not a platform for grappling with national challenges.

Success requires us to ensure our actions are fair and ethical. The past year has seen a decided shift in perception around the ethics of all sectors in Australian society. A series of Royal Commissions has reinforced that the question “should we” takes primacy over “can we”. Decisions cannot be arbitrary or conflicted. From compensation to remediation to funding decisions, they must follow guidelines and due process, which in turn must be clear and transparent. A perception that “the system” is rigged is corrosive and provides a platform for poor politics, policy and legislation.

As former NSW Rural Fire Service Assistant Commissioner Mark Crosweller AFSM said at the AGS, “Lead with humility”.

“One should be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” F Scott Fitzgerald

Success is built on taking risks. Leaders are forward-thinking, alert to risk and opportunity. Sometimes the evidence is decisive and they must be too. In crisis, leaders often are compelled to act based on judgement and experience, without all the evidence they would like. Often, these decisions may require stakeholders to walk a difficult path, of sacrifice and uncertainty. Humility is essential to ask a community for that sacrifice, to acknowledge the risks you are asking them to accept.

It is misleading, of course, for anyone to suggest a community’s continued prosperity can be assured. For many Australians there is no prospect the economic activity and employment that has created prosperity will continue for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.

The challenge is leading a discussion to resolve the decisions we make in this generation for future generations. These decisions must be — and must be seen to be — credible and effective responses, developed within a strong ethical framework, with understanding and respect for the needs of the stakeholders involved.

F Scott Fitgerald said, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

Our situation is not hopeless but these challenges can feel overwhelming, particularly in a constantly swirling media stream. We can see that these challenges are overwhelming and yet be determined to overcome them.