Business leaders as social visionaries? With caution and more depth, please.

When business leaders describe their lofty visions for society, I feel inspired but often also worried and annoyed, depending on their views and how they are positioned.

Having come across a few instances of business leaders advocating sweeping (social) policy changes with seeming disregard for the complexity involved, my view is that these leaders should walk a mile in government’s shoes before implying that it is government’s responsibility to realize grandiose visions for society. It is also inaccurate to portray government policy as the only obstacle to progress in a given area, since many problems arise from pre-existing social structures and prejudices.

It is easy for business leaders to assume the hero’s position with their bold statements. After all, it is not they but civil servants who have to do the quiet and difficult work of implementing changes to inch society closer to a given vision, juggling competing social priorities in the process. Yes, business can provide the money/technology to mitigate social problems but is it also the party that works through the complex knock-on (social) effects of a given change? Does business have to develop the social, legal and physical infrastructure to realize the benefits/mitigate the costs of that change? I am especially indignant when developed-country companies (and/or their leaders) criticize developing-country governments for not reforming fast enough but that could be a separate piece for another time.

I am not arguing for always preserving the status quo or for barring business from providing what can be useful social commentary but for at least giving due consideration — to potential issues and the challenge faced by the party tasked with resolving them. (Lest one thinks I am an anti-business fanatic/a government apologist, I also argue that governments should have a deeper understanding of how business and markets function when formulating policy. In addition, this article is about social policy, not industry policy, on which I am more confident business has subject matter expertise.)

Policies should be made given the existing state of the world as a condition. This is not to say that they cannot contain aspirational elements but one has to be very clear about what can be achieved within the defined timeframe that the policies are intended to have their effect. Besides, just because significant societal change cannot be effected through a single policy does not preclude change from being pursued more incrementally, through other channels (including non-policy ones where business can make a difference) or later.

In a previous job, one of my responsibilities was to evaluate whether my country should contribute peacekeepers to each U.N. peacekeeping mission that the international body requested contributions for. Every time we had to say no, it pained me considerably because I wanted and yet was powerless to help these countries in very desperate situations. (Bear in mind that right before I was in that job, I was a student — engaged in earnest discussions on how to make the world a better place, insulated from the harsh realities of, well, reality.) However, I rarely doubted that we made the right decision because I was clear about the validity of the rationale, given the circumstances. Doing what is right is not about doing what feels good to oneself or what is popular to others. It is about acting based on a clear-eyed assessment of what the situation is, not what one would very much like it to be.

Until business leaders have had to contain their humanitarian impulse to work within the possible, until they have had to reconcile opposing implications for different constituents of a public policy, they are free to contribute money/technology/expertise to their chosen cause — but they hardly have a right to hold government accountable for realizing their more idealistic/simplistic aspirations in the short term.

Nor should they paint a picture that obscures the complexity of underlying issues, as changes made based on simplistic views lead to a worse outcome for other vulnerable populations and sometimes even the populations the changes are intended to help. (As a side note, I actually suspect that business leaders may be aware of the complexity of changes they are advocating. However, because we live in a milieu where any expression of drawbacks to a recommendation is pounced upon as a sign of weakness, where any argument that cannot be encapsulated in a soundbite is dismissed, these leaders are just serving us the simplistic statements we deserve. This seems to apply more in certain countries than in others. Or perhaps leaders think calls to action are ineffective if they contain more than one dimension of an argument.)

In case it is not evident, we do not live in an ideal world. That does not mean we cannot strive for one. However, it is dangerous to make policy based on a vision that can be fulfilled only far into the future, if at all, without due consideration to today’s potential consequences. Doing so is likely to endanger the realization of that very vision.

We cannot change the world overnight but armed with honesty, clarity and a firm command of logic, we can at least start by recognizing the world as it is — in its politically-incorrect form — and accurately assessing what needs to be done.