Business sustainability, appropriate leadership and early childhood education

Business sustainability, appropriate leadership and early childhood education

The debate I would like to initiate centers around three issues viz. sustainable business practice, appropriate leadership models that lend itself to sustainability and the urgent need for early childhood education for all sectors of society.

Insofar as business sustainability is concerned, I want to propose that the model which espouses “doing good is good business” is a much more sustainable model than the alternative of “profit above all else”. To this end please refer to the extract below which was a part of the introduction to my short dissertation for my masters degree (business ethics) at Stellenbosch University.

This dissertation is written against a backdrop of some serious ethical lapses recently, resulting in several high profile and esteemed businesses collapsing. A recent scandal that comes to mind is that of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which was run for almost two decades right under the noses of the United States financial sector. Another is the case of “… Jerome Kerviel, when he, nearly, single-handedly brought down the French financial giant Societe Generale by running unauthorised trades …” (Fakir: 2009). 

How did this happen? Everyone seems to agree that, whilst these companies, without fail, exuded ethics based on their exterior packaging, their leaders were anything but ethical: driven by personal greed and playing the ‘game’ of business with scant regard for sustainability and/or the impact on the community they served.

Another such example was the collapse of Enron which, not long before its collapse, was held up to all as an excellent example of “corporate responsibility and ethics (and) … appeared to represent the best a 21st century organization had to offer, economically and ethically” (Simms and Brinkman, 2003: 243).

The paper written by Simms and Brinkman describes and discuses how executives at Enron looked after themselves by creating an organisation where self-enrichment became their ultimate goal at the expense of proper ethical behavior (243).

According to Simms and Brinkman,

Enron’s top executives set the tone for this culture. Personal ambition and greed seemed to overshadow much of their corporate and individual lives. They strove to maximize their individual wealth by initiating and participating in scandalous behaviors. Enron’s apparently accepted immoral culture created an atmosphere ripe for the unethical and illegal behavior that occurred (253). 

Whilst people have tried to ascribe these catastrophes to anomalies and/or rogue traders, it seems that it was ingrained in the businesses it afflicted and Fakir quite rightly contends that it was because of bosses with vested interests looking the other way (Fakir: 2009). 

Likewise, in South Africa, where the food retailer Pick ‘n Pay operates on the southern tip of Africa, things are no different, with newspaper headlines announcing in big bold letters on the front page of the Cape Times, one of the most popular tabloids in the country, ‘Business Ethics Slammed’ (Deputy Minister Slams Cronyism and Corruption). In the accompanying article the reporter quotes the South African Deputy Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene as saying that “(t)he (business) elite have ‘pickpocketed’ (et.cit.) state resources ‘through corruption, crony empowerment and by milking the state through charging exorbitant prices’” (Lewis: 2009).

Lewis concludes the article by quoting Nene as saying that

(e)ven as we search for a new growth paradigm and the world searches for a new economic paradigm, let us recognize that no system in the world is sustainable if it is not underpinned by a sense of morals, ethics and values. No system can succeed if it is not people-centred (et.cit.). We must put people first (Lewis: 2009). 

Obviously such a situation cannot be allowed to continue as it impacts on the longevity of businesses, which, in turn, impacts on employment etc. This apart from the impact on investors, who have often lost every cent they own as a result of the poor ethical standards practiced by the leaders of such companies. It can even cripple a relatively small, developing country like South Africa’s development in the long run.

Perhaps, then, what is needed to temper such unethical behavior, especially in business, is to, once again, re-focus on some of the standard normative ethical theories which could and are applied in business as a practice.

If that does not get you thinking, perhaps you will enjoy watching the attached short video clip of Barry Schwartz on Ted Talks (see link below) a few years ago in which he argues very convincingly for the balanced virtue ethics character based leadership approach rather than the current process driven KPI boosted approach.

Insofar as Early Childhood Education is concerned, I am of the view that, if the government spent sufficient funds on this field, especially in deprived areas, over the past thirty years we would have a good foundation to build on now. It is a well known fact that the first 7 years of a child’s life are crucial to his/her educational foundation and in poorer areas many small children are, out of necessity, with both parents working long hours, left to their own devices often without any or proper care. When such a child enters the formal education sphere with it’s well known current challenges, he/she starts with an immense disadvantage and can often never recover or catch up.

I would love to hear and debate your views on these topics?