A question of leadership – lessons from emerging economies

Business has led and driven many social changes.  In their ideal form international corporations operate in a ‘business without boundaries’ environment and are thus in a unique position to deliver economic diplomacy as the driving force of an engaged, prosperous civil society.  With the GDP growth of emerging markets far outstripping that of the developed world, and natural resources in particular, offering real opportunity, there has never been a better time to recontextualise the role of business as an enabler of positive social and labour market policy.

Says Charlotte Kalin, Chamber Trade Sweden’s CEO:

“Chamber Trade Sweden in itself is trying to model a new type of leadership by daring to have the difficult conversations.  In exploring Leadership and Ethics in Developing Countries we wanted to initiate some frank discussions. Whether it’s the role of women in Iraq, turning individual health and happiness into a business issue or developing the idea that business ethics and corruption are personal choices; we want to connect around a new kind of thinking.”

This has created an interesting dynamic, which of course in itself embodies Sweden’s famous free trade approach and progressive business policy. A mixture of experts and business leaders from markets as diverse as Kenya, Iraq, South Africa and Indonesia were able to model powerful personal direction and directly link this to business and market growth, despite or maybe because of the challenging environments they operated in. They frame-worked difficult topic areas by demonstrating, for example, how an individually-driven ethical compass can enable private sector market entrants to deliver corruption-resistant business models.

In the key note session, Professor Brian Ganson, Head of the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement, set the tone:

“Companies are to a very large extent authors of their own risk. By changing the sense of what is relevant and adjusting corporate vision to the given situation –a positive network of stakeholders is created from the inside out and the outside in. Most importantly this collaboration, which is often tied to Corporate Social responsibility (CSR) and open dialogue, brings justice and positive social models in its wake.”

Professor Ganson went on to cite Schweppes in Zimbabwe, who sold 51% of their local operation to the Union, as a prime example of changing the ‘accepted’ narrative.

Another great approach to a new type of leadership was shared by Felicia Muriuki, a representative of the African Women in Agribusiness Network (AWAN) and senior executive within her family owned Keremara Limited Jungle Estate. Her drive to envision, empower, enable and energize was directly modelled by a policy she personally championed in her business.

“Most of our workers are women, but recognising the role of the mothers/leaders in our homes is also key in terms of national development. We embed proactive CSR and HR policies (introducing a creche for example) as mechanisms that support our needs as a ‘thriving for profit’ company.  By enabling our mainly female workers to fully embrace their roles of leadership inside and outside the home, we ensure business growth. Corporate leaders and policy makers need to facilitate the role of mothers as leaders – recognising the challenge of building an organic value system.”

The need to drive an organic value system using 21st century media and social media tools was championed by two other speakers. Personal transparency however was seen to be the key to unlocking this opportunity.

Basma  Habib from the University of Sulaimani in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq did not, for example, shy away from telling an international audience that in Iraq women were still considered very much as second class citizens. She saw cultural perceptions as being at the root of the issue and wanted to see the small steps for women to engage within a challenging labour market communicated as opportunities for growth.  A transparent media that was able to portray challenges clearly, was at the heart of her vision. She welcomed Nina-iraq.com, as a great example of a community that promoted discussion and modelled opportunity for women, without any hidden agenda.

In our knowledge age of 24/7 open communication, the fact that personal ethics and values are inseparable from the corporate ones was an important realisation for final speaker Indira Abidin, leader for PT Fortune, one of Indonesia’s leading PR agencies.

“By being transparent we become collaborative. People trust those who have the courage to be honest. Collaboration that is based on individual connections leads to positive corporate values. By linking personal branding to corporate values and dialogue we create powerful business growth. In this way I have driven over 25,000 social media relationships that have led to business opportunity.”

To Indira the financial health of her organisation is directly linked to the personal health and happiness of her employees. Having won many of ASEAN’s key awards for a company that was ‘leaking money’ ten years ago, the self-styled Chief Happiness Officer (aka CEO) made a convincing case for aligning the vision of business units to corporate values, to personal well-being.

One thing is clear. A dynamic form of leadership is required to build resilient business in emerging economies. Embracing where we are at whilst understanding where we’d like to be – linked to values based on respect and humility and transparent communication – are things that are useful for all business leaders.

My personal take away? I heard that leaders need to be flexible enough to fully embed locally and forceful enough to work within values that can deliver access to justice. They must also be humble enough to realise that leadership is as constantly evolving as the society it is embedded within.

Ultimately an integrated approach helps us embrace who we are.  This link to personal responsibility and sharing these values with wider audiences turns us all into leaders. So it is in this way we are able to contribute to the world we want to live in; a world that celebrates financial profit but never forgets that human capital is at its heart.

Madeleine White,
Co-founder and Editor in Chief
Nina Magazine