The art of doing well by doing good

Given the enormity of today’s existential challenges, steward leadership in the corporate world is badly needed. Towards that end, we could collectively benefit from spotlighting examples of how such leaders put their beliefs into action.

Given the enormity of today’s existential challenges, steward leadership in the corporate world is badly needed, says the writer. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Ask anyone who the leader of their country is, and most people will name their prime minister or president. Ask them who the leader of their company is, and most people will name their CEO.

But is leadership a title? Is it just about having power and authority?

The definition of leadership has evolved in recent years. Rather than just maximising shareholder wealth or winning elections, it is now seen more as how one makes a positive difference to humanity and contributes to a larger good.

This is quite an improvement over the old "command and control" definition. However, it still does not help address today's existential challenges such as climate change, income inequality and social unrest.

If Covid-19 has taught us one lesson, it is this - no one is safe until everyone is safe. The same is true for the challenges. If we do not meaningfully address them with urgency, both planet Earth and humanity as we know it will perish.

The world has acknowledged that urgent action is needed, and several solutions have emerged. For instance, the finance industry is making cheaper capital available via green financing. Regulators are creating stiffer rules and reporting requirements for businesses, and boards are designing executive compensation incentives linked to environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) markers to change corporate behaviour.

While much needed, are these solutions enough? Looking at examples of ESG excellence in the last few decades, such as those of Unilever, Tata and Patagonia to name a few, one needs to ask whether the actions of these companies were driven by any of the solutions?

Choosing steward leadership

The answer is a big no. They were driven by leadership intent of a different kind - to create economic value by stewarding the needs of stakeholders, society, future generations and the environment.

Leaders who pursue such objectives in their corporate strategies are few and far between. For them, it is not mere leadership but steward leadership, which we, at Stewardship Asia Centre, define as the genuine desire and persistence to create a collective better future.

This type of leader sees steward leadership as a proactive choice rather than an obligation driven by the cost of capital, regulation or incentives. And they are silently proving that it is possible to do well by doing good. Their actions show that to pursue a higher purpose, there is no need to give up long-term profitability or growth.

Steward Leadership 25

Given the enormity of today's existential challenges, we need more corporate leaders to choose steward leadership proactively. To encourage this, Stewardship Asia Centre has teamed up with the Insead Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society, global broking and solutions firm WTW, and The Straits Times to launch an initiative called Steward Leadership 25 (SL25).

SL25 will be an annual listing of the 25 best narratives of steward leadership in action in the Asia-Pacific region. Unlike other lists that rank and rate each company on its sustainability performance, this list is non-competitive. The 25 chosen stories will not be ranked. They will be published as 25 great narratives of steward leadership.

Each year, the four partners will post the annual list, including case studies and stories, on their respective media platforms, books and publications. The case studies will be used in both university and executive education to encourage similar actions by others.

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An annual list to recognise the top 25 companies in Asia-Pacific that pursue sustainable goals will be launched on Thursday (March 31), known as the Steward Leadership 25 (SL25).

If your organisation - large, medium or small listed, private or social enterprise - is pursuing steward leadership in both strategy and execution, we encourage you to nominate yourself for inclusion in the inaugural list, which will be published on Nov 30 this year, and revealed at the Steward Leadership Summit in Singapore on that date.

The nomination process is easy. Scan the QR code below and submit your nomination online. An international panel of prominent judges will select the top 25 stories. Shortlisted organisations will be able to display their inclusion in the list on their websites and other materials, thereby enhancing their reputation as a responsible business.

So, if you are doing well by doing good, let's share your story with the world.

  • Rajeev Peshawaria is chief executive officer of Stewardship Asia Centre.

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