Can companies like Starbucks heal America's broken leadership?
Date: 12 Sep 2011
Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, is making a stand against bitter partisan divisions in Congress. He published a full page ad listing a hundred business leaders that had agreed - like him - to withhold campaign contributions until legislators sorted out a fair, bipartisan deal in the face of the economic crisis.
Having called for business leadership in the face of broken US politics a few times - most recently here - I was interested in the initiative. Could this be the beginning of the pragmatic business movement I believe is possible, and is desperately needed?
Much though I'd like to think so, I don't.
For a start, it focuses exclusively on the deficit - whereas there is a desperate need for business to take action on climate change given the heavily polarised state of the debate in that area with one party having effectively given up on evidence-based policy making in that area.
This is a disaster, frankly. Most other countries have been able to build a political consensus on the subject, where they can argue about the 'how' it should be done, not whether it should be done at all. So long as it remains a party issue, you can not have a sustainable future, because the fortunes of parties are so up and down.
Businesses as pragmatic entities which, nevertheless because they are the engines of prosperity in America - and, of course, the campaign contributions as well - are uniquely placed to take action in the face of a failure of leadership there.
But Schultz's latest initiative feels too much like gesture politics.
Why? Well, for a start, there is now a campaign website http://www.upwardspiral2011.org with his photo on it. It feels more like a political campaign designed to get lots of publicity for Schultz than to achieve real change.
Secondly, the list of business leaders is not going to cause much of a ripple amongst its intended targets. None of the big, really important, political donors are on the list. Schultz himself gives - in the context of American political giving - tiny amounts.
I rather envisaged that if serious businesses wanted to shift the core of political opinion they would probably do it more quietly. Now, that's an interesting thought, isn't it? Because I tend to think that companies that are serious about exercising influence will not advertise that they are wielding such influence. And yet, where does that leave us on the ethics of corporate lobbying?
Entirely pragmatically - quiet influence is far more powerful. It means that once people have been influenced, ways can be found for them to rationalise the shift to their supporters by claiming authorship of their new position. It means that things can change, because the authors of change don't feel they have to get the credit.
This is pretty much how business (and politics) works. How many CEOs come up with their own speeches, or even their own product ideas?
The world of change is full of changemakers resigned to never being credited with the successes that come from their actions. They help their leaders to look good.
Of course, now we have the CR movement which has argued (me included) for more transparency over what political positions a company takes. Because we far more fear that those positions will actually be about lobbying for short term advantage in the face of sustainability needs, rather than the opposite. Certain friends of mine in the PR industry describe such views as "naive in the extreme."
I don't have to agree with them, but I know that many of the top business leaders in US corporations certainly do. One can argue about how business should take action in the future to influence US politics to take a serious position on sustainability and the financial deficit - but in any case I am pretty much convinced that Schultz' initiative does not represent the first sign of that movement for change taking place.
So why is he doing it? Maybe it's because it uses a similar vehicle to the one that supported Obama's election, and they think that's how all campaigns are done these days. Maybe Schultz is looking for a platform for a personal next step of his own - the next Ross Perot perhaps? Time will tell.
If I'm right, then it is a good thing that it is not focusing on climate change, because that would just make things harder - in the same way that having Al Gore as the main cheerleader on the issue has been immensely damaging (I regret to say, given the skill and passion he has brought to it) because of his partisan background.
The need is too urgent for change makers not to seriously ask themselves how change most often actually happens in the world today. Setting up partisan platforms can sometimes do it, but rarely in a long-term sustainable way, because that requires the building of a broader platform of agreement.
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In a recent article, the BBC's economics editor Robert Peston highlighted the fact that in 2012 the chances are that the economy - punch drunk as it is from the various flavours of debt crisis it has been pummelled with over the course of the year - will be hit by the collapse of a major bank and / or government.
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