It might be uncomfortable, but it’s time for business leaders to speak out on social and environmental issues, even if it means being accused of virtue signalling, writes Rob Campbell.

A few times recently when expressing a view on issues such as diversity, gender equality, or climate action, I have been accused of “virtue signalling”. It has made me think. And what I have thought is that as an accusation it fails.

This is not simply because I would rather be signalling virtue than evil. Nor that there is anything wrong with signalling. In business leadership signalling is preferable to instructing both in terms of efficacy and inclusivity.

The real idea which the accusations address is the perception that, by expressing support for the issues identified, one is either claiming some superiority on the matters or misleading by signalling something which is not desirable.

On the first matter I have no doubt. For my part chastity, whether commercial or otherwise, has been irreparably taken by half a century of union and business leadership. In relation to the simply non-financial issues with which I engage I am late to express and action an appropriate position. I’ve remained within narrow vision to the detriment of the organisations I work with.

The businesses I work in are similarly late to take up these challenges. We are acting now but we and our communities would be better off if we had seen and acted sooner. Anything I express about these matters contains a substantial amount of self-criticism, as there should be.

One important thing I have learnt is that there is strength in enabling others seeking change at an age and stage when passive resistance or evasion may come more naturally.

… it encourages younger people to see business activity as a medium for change and not a dead or exploitative weight on the back of change.

So here we are, belatedly and quite probably inadequately, turning our business minds to a broad set of social issues and signalling not only that they are important but that there is a need for (quite probably painful) change to put them on a better path.

This signalling does seem to me to be important.

First, it weakens the limitations on change which the patterns of behavior from the past impose. It frees up the search for better patterns.

Second, it creates relationships between our businesses and the wider community which support and enable adaptation.

Third, it encourages younger people to see business activity as a medium for change and not a dead or exploitative weight on the back of change.

Not all change is for the good. But anyone with a smidgen of clarity can see where social and environmental conditions are taking us.

That is the reality for business. You can choose to be with that reality or not. I have.

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