Business plays an enormous role in shaping our world. Its leaders have an obligation, not just a right, to speak up about social and environmental issues.
The marriage equality debate has opened up a secondary debate about the right of corporate leaders to express a view on social or environmental issues. The line often touted is that it is the role of business to look after the interests of shareholders and to leave social issues to the politicians.
This is an unenlightened and increasingly outdated view.
Business is increasingly the force that will have the most impact in shaping the future of our society and the planet itself. This is a reality that is hard to avoid as much as we may rue the fact that it has become so. If this is our reality then our business leaders are the stewards of our future as much as our politicians.
And we want to know how they think.
As consumers we want to know that the product we buy has been delivered to us without having damaged the planet or exploited human rights. As employees, the culture of an organisation is a critical factor in deciding how we want to earn our livelihood. And as investors, before we provide our hard earned capital for them to apply we want to know where it is going.
We need to know how they think so that we can make conscious choices in our interactions with them and ensure they align with our values.
But their obligation is broader than that. Well-functioning democracies rely on open, constructive discussion of the issues of the day to help shape the society we wish to create. These voices need to include a cross section of our society – politicians, journalists, civil society leaders – and business.
We want our leaders to think and act with empathy, conscious of the impact of their actions on the world around them. We want them to not only do this in a reactive sense but to pro-actively care. We want them to embrace this responsibility for their actions. And this necessarily requires them to have an opinion and express a view.
The days where business is concerned purely for profit are long gone. Our business leaders are important stewards of our future. We may not agree with their views. But we should respect and celebrate their right to express it.