In an era where the chairman of a multinational firm holds more power than the leaders of most countries, boards need to revisit who they are working for, and why. We do not have to choose between principles and profits. Nor do they simply co-exist, they are co-dependent. A central challenge is how to reconcile differing needs. A shareholder wants profits. Civil Society may want a carbon neutral society. But when I look around me, at the members of the Council of Christians and Jews, I know that this can be done.
The Council was established in 1942 to try to find common ground between two religious communities, which for centuries had been characterised by what divided them and not what they shared. Of course, what transpired was that each side found that the values that underpinned their decisions were a lot closer than they might have expected.
It is not the role of business leaders to debate ethical dilemmas, or the finer points of theology. It is not our role to find new moral codes. But we can and must have values – religious or otherwise, which guide not just how we make our money, but what we do with it, when we have made it.
Business and wider society are currently having to adapt to a strange new world, a post-communist, multi-polar, digital age. We need strong values to anchor us, and to navigate a world which is fast, and is getting faster. But we are not the only generation to have experienced rapid political and technological development. From the mid to the end of the 19th century, the words industrialist and philanthropist practically became synonymous. Today, people question the motives, particularly the religious motives, of those great businessmen of the past.
Whom do you prefer? The cavalier risk taking we saw in 21st century Lehman Brothers, or the partnership of the original brothers – Emanuel, the conservative sibling, acting as a break on Mayer, the bolder brother, as they created one of America's foremost investment banks. Later, Philip Lehman, Emanuel's son, would express his reservations about a colleague at Goldman Sachs who was too optimistic, too ambitious and too aggressive. How things have changed!
Lord Peter Levene of Portsoken is Chairman of Lloyd's. This is an extract from a speech to the Council of Christians and Jews on WednesdayReuse content