We live in the country of never-ending scandals, a country that is constantly bringing up the rear in every ranking that attempts to measure corruption in political and economic systems. In the broader landscape (with the possible exception of Northern European countries), more and more often the entanglements between politics and economics are seen as danger zones where there is a high risk of “deviations from legality.” But ethics in management or governance actually have nothing to do with paying or pocketing bribes - that’s called criminality.
Ethics go deeper. Ethics may be less visible, but more incisive in establishing the long-term legitimization of a country’s ruling class. Ethics, in reality, are about the relationship between individual interests and collective interests.
In companies, many managers preach ethics while practicing opportunistic behaviors. Others eschew personal designs and expediency to protect their organization, out of concern not just for themselves but for others as well. Leading entrepreneurs who have made their mark in the history of our country still represent a model that belongs in the second category. At a public level, instead, at times the heads of our government and public institutions have been primarily concerned with their own personal and electoral gain; and at other times enlightened statesmen and stateswomen and public officials have taken the helm, people who consider the impact of their decisions on future generations. And once again, only this second group has made history.
But who are great managers? the ones who, in private, have maximized short-term results, and in public have cut costs here and there and caused an uptick in efficiency? Or the ones who, in public and private alike, have forged a vision of the future and actually realized that vision with intelligence, rigor and determination? And who are great politicians? The ones who’ve given in to the temptation of easy campaign promises without weighing the actual consequences in the medium to long term on the economic system and the quality of life of all citizens? Or the ones who’ve shouldered the burden of unpopular decisions, working to undercut corporate privilege and interests, to the benefit of ideals and concrete projects that can promote wellbeing and greater social and intergenerational equality?.
Our country suffers the limitations of a ruling class that is at times too self-referential, too little preoccupied with the interest of the general public, too near-sighted, and often incapable of conceiving a vision of the future.
In an insightful article published in Corriere della Sera entitled “The Legendary Powers that Be,” this is how Ferruccio De Bortol sums up the question: “It’s a serious matter that in our country the meaning of the concept of a responsible ruling class is being lost (though thankfully it’s not yet entirely gone). [This concept refers to] leaders who are also concerned with the common good, who can map out a direction, an idea of society, like the one that make the economic miracle possible after the Second World War. In short, people who take pride in leading, without being brazenly demanding. Determined above all to set a good example…Those who fear the powers that be can rest easy. Those who have the future of our country at heart, the molding of a quality ruling class, reforms and a return to growth - they are the ones who have a great deal to worry about.” In the end, the competitiveness of our country suffers, the trust that our citizens place in our institutions, the sense of belonging to a social economic system perceived as unfair, with future prospects that are uncertain.
So what do they have in common, company managers who are too preoccupied about market reactions, politicians who are at the mercy of pollsters, and public servants who are paralyzed by formal risks and governance bodies? They’ve all lost sight of their responsibility. They’ve all lost touch with the idea that the people at the top must first take responsibility for the best interests of the general public. Because over time, this is the only thing that guarantees the competiveness of companies, the legitimization of the political class and the credibility of institutions.
So it’s no coincidence, the message from Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, one of the leading international investment funds. In his now-famous letter, sent to the heads of all the major companies in the world, he underscores the importance of rediscovering a deep sense of corporate mission: «Purpose unifies management, employees, and communities. It drives ethical behavior and creates an essential check on actions that go against the best interests of stakeholders. Purpose guides culture, provides a framework for consistent decision-making, and, ultimately, helps sustain long-term financial returns for the shareholders of your company».
The growing debate on the questions of sustainability and social responsibility, linked to the concrete implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, represent another indelible sign of fresh new awareness of the role of companies and institutions.
Certainly it’s not always easy to sacrifice personal interest or expediency, but this is precisely where the fundamental ethical dilemma lies for everyday decision-makers. And they would be deluding themselves to think that in the long-term they can realistically pursue an individual interest that is also capable of generating value for different stakeholders and for communities at large.
So we need to convey to young people the idea that being a leader first and foremost means taking responsibility for others. This is the first step in forming a better ruling class, one that our country (and many others) undoubtedly needs. In this scenario, the educational system plays a fundamental role, because new generations are where values will be forged that will guide the leaders of tomorrow.
And good examples can do so much. Leading entrepreneurs such as Adriano Olivetti in the past century, or Michele Ferrero in more recent times model the best choices to make, and they continue to inspire future behavior. And think of other great public servants such as Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino; and countless ordinary men and women who have sacrificed their existence for the sake of others; and prominent international figures such as Mario Draghi, or that irreplaceable lodestar for the country which is our President of the Republic: all these people, every day, whether past or present, bear witness to a nobler, higher sense of what it means to be a leader.
Because only by fully grasping once again the true sense of the responsibility of leadership will we be able to relaunch our country. And we may even rise in the rankings and at long last join the nations with less corruption.