A New Era of Stakeholder Activism: Why We Are Disoriented and What to do About It

By Morgan Hamel and Keith Darcy

Part 1

Background

In 1970, Alan Toffler and his wife, Adelaide Farrell, wrote a best-selling book, Future Shock, wherein he defined the title of the book as “disorientation due to premature accelerated change.” Toffler wrote that the speed of change leaves us confused and disoriented. Looking back, however, the environment in 1970 looks more like a three-layer cake compared to today’s increasingly complex world. As the once familiar maps and guideposts blur, we grope into the future seeking a new understanding of the world and our responsibilities in it

Today’s extraordinary speed of change has contributed to an age of disruption:

As if these issues aren’t enough, leaders everywhere are keenly focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its potential impact on businesses everywhere, as well as concern for the potential for the war expanding into NATO territory.

No one is immune from these issues. Board members, C-suite leaders, ethics and compliance executives, ESG professionals, management consultants and academics have been shaken by world events and trends leaving them “disoriented.”

In days past, companies relied upon well-written statements of values, codes of ethics, sustainability reports and PR campaigns to address stakeholder concerns. The corporate world order as we knew it, however, isn’t what it used to be. It has taken on a moral dimension that presents new challenges to leaders everywhere. A quote by the renowned ethics professor Kirk Hanson captures this shift:

“I am convinced we are now seeing a long-term trend, indeed, a megatrend, that companies, boards, and business associations will (be forced to) speak out on a limited set of issues many will still call political but are actually critical ethical questions. The challenge for companies is to be able to recognize the genuine moral issues and act on them before inaction destroys public confidence in them.”

While one may or may not agree with Kirk Hanson’s framing (Joe Zammit-Lucia makes a compelling argument that these issues are political), many stakeholders view issues that were previously the purview of governments as “moral” and as topics that require action by business and their leaders. Companies are wise to realize this.


About the Authors

Morgan Hamel is President of MH Partners Inc., an independent consulting firm dedicated to helping firms navigate moral nuance to build long-term stakeholder value. Having earned a Master’s in Applied Ethics from Utrecht University (2010), worked in the ethics office of a large corporation for 11 years, and built a successful ESG-centric fashion marketing company, Morgan brings together the academic, corporate, and entrepreneurial elements of ethics and business in a unique and accessible way. She has a particular passion for helping organizations work through challenges resulting from rapidly emerging stakeholder activism and has a strong desire to contribute to a better world for her two children.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm founded in 2002 that works with boards and senior executives on a wide variety of complex corporate governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Therein he has worked across six continents and in all business sectors. He has combined a 45-year career as a senior executive and corporate director with his passion for education, having taught at The Wharton School for 24 years and served as associate dean and distinguished professor of business at Georgetown University.

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