I was in London last week for the Brexit vote. Friday morning Londoners, who voted by and large to remain in the EU, were walking the streets with a stunned look, and what's even odder (for English people, at least) actually talking to strangers in cafes and on trains, discussing how such a thing could happen, what would happen next, and who was to blame.

When it came to that last question, there was plenty of anger to go around, with many complaining about David Cameron's decision to call the referendum, others infuriated at the weak Leave campaign, and still others offering less than polite commentary on segments of their fellow citizens. But one place I didn't see many fingers pointing was at business leadership.

Was that a mistake?

Of course, most business leaders were firmly for staying in the EU, so they can't be faulted for their immediate role in the referendum, but according author Umair Haque, writing on the HBR blogs, those who lead the country's companies are very far from blameless. Before they shake their heads at the foolishness of others, British business leaders need to take a long, hard look in the mirror, he passionately argues.

Fiddling while Rome burns?

The heart of Haque's argument is that business leaders have roundly ignored the suffering of a wide swath of the population. "In both the UK and the U.S., median incomes have been stagnant for decades," he notes. "In the UK, living standards have fallen for all but the wealthiest. In the U.S., the majority of public school kids are now in poverty, the middle class is for the first time a demographic minority, and life expectancy is flat overall and actually fell for whites."

But while the middle class is being hollowed out, GDP continues to grow (if anemically) and those at the top of the business world are doing well. This has allowed the winners of this global reordering to simply look away from the very real pain of a significant percentage of the population. That ignored and suffering segment has grown incensed, throwing their lot in with demagogues as a result.

But isn't doing something to fix this the problem the job of politicians? Not exclusively, according to Haque.

"It is easy to point the finger at failed political leadership. But this is about failed corporate leadership as well," he insists. "The truth is that today's business leaders have failed in the simplest, starkest, hardest terms. The middle class, which is the bellwether of prosperity, its truest measure, and the great creation of modernity (no, it wasn't the iPhone) is vanishing under their watch."

What should they be doing about it? "To prevent such catastrophes from happening, business needs to play a more active, engaged role in creating the kind of thriving, vibrant economies that inoculate societies from self-implosion--because those implosions take businesses down with them, too. Brexits don't happen in thriving economies; they only happen when the pie is shrinking," he writes, adding:

"It's not enough just to let people's lives roll downhill a little more slowly than the next business, and call it a job well done. You can't CSR your way out of this while paying your senior executives more and more and paying your workers (relatively) less and less."

Do you agree with him?

Published on: Jun 28, 2016
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