Monday, November 17, 2008

Message from Brussels: Yes We Can!

It is amazing how much positive impact the election of a moral American president can have on world attitudes. I just returned from Brussels, attending a conference on ethics in business, ethical leadership, and the financial crisis, held at the European Parliament with the International Association for Human Values. For the first time in years, I was able to travel abroad without having to defend or argue about U.S. foreign policy. I imagine that my experience was similar to an American traveling abroad during the Kennedy years.

The themes I heard in Brussels were: the need for trust and ethical leadership; the financial crisis is an ethical crisis; the need for a global economy that is fairer and benefits more people; and "Yes We Can!" In fact, Barack Obama's phrase "yes we can" was uttered several times during the conference, much like "amen" might be uttered in a church.

Before I get into some of the things said during the panels, I want to mention the presentation made by the CCS World Youth Forum, a select group of young leaders that attended a training course on ethical leadership before the conference.

The young leaders (pictured above) made speeches, showed a film they made on the financial crisis, and sang a song. Here is an excerpt of the lyrics (the music was reminiscent of "Day by Day" or "Bless the Lord" in the musical "Godspell"):

Ideas to action not into words
Aim for the stars, have a dream
Change the world - you are free
We are the change the moment is now

Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!

Keep your heart burning.
Be the change you want to see in the world... let's keep it real

Together we can!

Some other themes from the conference:

Ludo Bammens of Coca Cola's EU Group made a speech that prompted one audience member to ask him how he got to be so inspirational. Bammens said that there are two types of trust: the unconditional trust he feels with his child and the "transactional trust" between companies and stakeholders. Transactional trust is built on the following formula, he said:

Trust = Performance - Expectations

Where expectations are placed on how a company impacts "my community, my well-being, and the global environment." The rewards and punishments (teeth) by stakeholders include:

Do I buy your product? Do I buy your stock? Do I want to be employed by you? Will the government regulate you? And does the public believe you (your information)?

Performance is the ability to inspire and make a difference. And this factor is multiplied by time.

One person from the audience asked where do profits fit in the formula. Bammens answered that Coke was established more than 100 years ago when profits were everything. That is not the case anymore. A company needs to do more and offer more value to society to survive.

Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp also gave one of the most memorable speeches. He said the figure Abraham of the Hebrew Scriptures was tested by God to show if Abraham knew himself (or "Know Thyself," as famously written on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, along with "Nothing to Excess"). Similarly, the financial crisis is testing the world to determine whether humanity can reach its potential. The emergence of a million NGOs is in the same spirit of 1948, the development of international systems in accordance with human values, dignity, and brotherhood.

A relevant phrase that was conjured by one of the speakers was: "A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest."

Is the crisis "Made in America"? Sure, we have seen some commentary to this effect. But I was encouraged that the speakers and conversations were mostly non-ideological.

I (seated in foreground) was wondering if an anti-American view (see comments on earlier post in this blog) would come up during my trip to Brussels last week. Fortunately, it did not. During my speech on the future of capitalism, I asked the audience if anyone could identify the precise origin of the crisis, and not one person raised their hand. To the comment on American capitalism, I would just offer a couple of comments: One is that this crisis is global; no major economy--no matter its variation of governance--is invulnerable. Yes, the crisis had much of its origins in the United States, but the causes and impacts are global.

Second, the global economy has created more wealth and has raised more people out of poverty than could have been imagined 20 years ago. Finally, American capitalism has morphed many times over the past century. I might suggest we rediscover some of the first principles of capitalism: real, broader profit and real, long term prudence. I would agree that consumerism should be reexamined but, ironically, we will need fiscal and monetary stimuli to get out of the crisis. As Paul Krugman recently noted, any fiscal stimulus less than monumental will be insufficient.

The global debate so far to the crisis has been mostly non-ideological. This is promising: the world needs to cooperate and stay open.

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