It’s down to us, now

Ten years ago, during the course of my research into the Tata Group, I interviewed one of the group’s grand old men, R.K. Krishna Kumar. When I met him he was head of Tata Global Beverages, but he had been involved with many companies in the group over the years. 

I asked him, as I asked everyone, what he thought the values of the Tata brand were. He did not answer immediately. Instead he gazed out the window for a while, steepling his fingers, and it was perhaps five seconds or so before he spoke. ‘What you must realise’, he said, ‘is that this is not a brand story. This is a story about good and evil.’ 

I have to admit was dumbstruck. I had asked a question about marketing; why were we suddenly discussing metaphysics? I was also a little uncomfortable. I am an ordinary cynical agnostic Canadian; I don’t tend to have conversations about good and evil, and find them rather emotive subjects. But I listened while R.K. Krishna Kumar explained his philosophy, and I began to understand. 

The world, he said (and I am paraphrasing heavily here) is full of bad things. War, hunger, sickness, poverty, illiteracy, refugees fleeing persecution, destitute people trying and often failing to hold their lives together. Those things, he said, can fairly be called evil. That means we as business leaders have two choices. We can turn our back on the evil, in which case we become part of the problem. Or we can use the very limited power we have to try and make a difference, to alleviate at least some of the problems we see around us. And if we do so, then we can with fairness be called good. 

And now, the time has come to take sides. Right here, right now, we need to decide which it will be. Not every business or every organisation is able to join in the fight against Covid-19; for many of us, all we can do is hunker down and wait. But the time will come when we must emerge from our bunkers and foxholes, and start the rebuilding process. When that happens, everyone will have a role to play. 

Nor is it just a matter of returning to the old normal. The world we knew before the crisis will not return, and nor should it. Rampant inequality, climate change and many other issues mean that even once the economy has been restored to health, we still have mountains to climb. Our businesses and public institutions need to pull together as never before and learn to collaborate and harness each others’ power, and that means we will to change our ways of leading managing, often quite dramatically. 

To paraphrase Charles Darwin (but only slightly), it is not the strongest or the fastest or the most intelligent that survive, but those that are the best able to adapt. As of now, as of this very moment, we need to begin to think about how we will adapt and what contribution we will make towards building a better future. That is the imperative that faces everyone of us. 

But, of course, no one can compel us to join in the effort of rebuilding. We have free will, and we can freely choose to be selfish, greedy and uncaring, if that is what we wish. As Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, no one can decide on ethical issues for us; we have to choose for ourselves. But we cannot delay the choice any longer. This, as they say in snooker, is make-your-mind-up time. 

So, back to R.K. Krishna Kumar. What choice do we make? Which do we want to be? Part of the problem, or part of the solution?