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Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis

Values at Davos

Posted: 01/27/11 05:31 PM ET

Yesterday was the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, a little mountain village in Switzerland, where each January corporate CEOs, heads of state and leaders of nonprofit organizations from around the globe gather to reflect upon the state of the world.

I had been to Davos before the financial crisis of 2008, as part of a group of religious leaders who came to discuss interfaith cooperation, but who also began to dialogue with the other participants at Davos about moral values and the economy. Quite honestly, these conversations about moral values and the economy often felt like an extra-curricular activity, with sessions at 7 a.m. on the third floor. But after the economic crisis hit, our values conversations felt more like a necessity,  and we were quickly moved to prime time in the main hall.

At Davos 2008, the World Economic Forum convened a plenary session for all its participants on "Values and the Market." I was on the panel and said that asking when the crisis will end was the wrong question; the right question was, how will the crisis change us? Looking out over a huge hall full of business and political leaders (not my usual audience), I suggested that too often people didn't believe they had to bring virtue and values to bear on economic decisions -- that the market would automatically take care of those things. But, as the economic crisis has shown, this was the wrong mentality. The panel caused a buzz, and its questions resonated through that week, leading to many "pastoral" conversations with CEOs who told me they had "lost" some important values. The positive response I felt at Davos eventually led me to write a new book, Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery. I began to speak at business schools, and found business leaders coming to talk to me like Nicodemus at night.

A year later, at Davos 2009, there were 17 sessions with the word "values" in the title. I found myself on a plenary panel with Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, addressing the subject of "Rethinking Values in the Post-Crisis World," and talking about business with a moral purpose -- even as a tool for eliminating poverty. But some of us began to feel the danger of just holding values seminars as a response to a devastating economic crisis. Behaviors created this crisis, and unless our values talk led to changed behaviors, it all wouldn't mean very much.

Out of that conference a Global Agenda Council on Values was formed, and I now find myself unexpectedly as its chair. This Council on Values has been given the task of shaping what the World Economic Forum is calling the "Moral Economy Dialogue" -- a multi-year process that will develop serious tools for personal, organizational, corporate and national values assessments that focus on changing behaviors.

This week at Davos 2011, new metrics like "human flourishing" and "the common good" are being lifted up. Again, I have had many personal conversations with business executives who feel alone in their soul-searching for values. Furthermore, business ethics professors at some of the country's leading business schools have also told me that their courses are over-subscribed, yet they still feel marginal to the curriculum.

All day yesterday, in many of the sessions here at Davos, we wrestled with feeling "stuck" in trying to implement values-change at big corporations and banks. We are now moving from just a conversation on values to a conversation on behavioral change. For example, we had a session yesterday on "Defining Shared Norms." We spoke of the need for both external regulation and self-regulation; both external accountabilities and the internal moral compass which comes from embedding values in a business. This is all good news to Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of Davos who, as a young Swiss economist many years ago, wrote about the need for business to not only take into account the interests of shareholders, but also of the many other stakeholders -- including employees, consumers, the poor, the environment and future generations.

That Davos would take these issues very seriously, and would turn to faith community leaders for help, is good news to me. But the headline in yesterday's International Herald Tribune -- "The Super-Rich Pull Ever Farther Ahead" -- indicated we still have a long way to go. Many of those super-rich are at Davos, and I indicated yesterday that the only people whose lives seem to have got back to "normal" since the financial crisis began are those whose behaviors caused it in the first place. They are back to record profits, while a seminar I attended yesterday showed how dramatic and devastating unemployment still is around the globe -- especially for young people.

But the conversations here lasted far into the night, and I woke up this morning with a full day of more work before us, including one session where I will speak on "Mindful Leadership." Indeed, leadership -- moral leadership -- is clearly the issue now, and our session today is already overbooked. And that's a good sign. I find myself spending time at Davos every year now with an exciting group of about 50 young entrepreneurs called the Young Global Leaders, who are asking some of the most important questions that are before us.

The snow keeps falling here, but there are signs and hopes for spring.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis. Click here to get email updates from Jim Wallis

 
 
 

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