What do Pope Francis, Edward Snowden, Barack Obama, and Google have in common? They are all caught in the crosshairs of the growing global challenge of trust in leadership. Is the erosion due to ineffective leadership exercised by untrustworthy leaders? I’m inclined to believe that today’s dynamic, ubiquitous communications Tower of Babel is as much to blame as is the quality of leadership being exercised. Armed with incredible computing power in their side pocket, today’s consumers, voters, and employees are skeptical of much of what is served up to them as they “hear” a counterpoint to virtually every message coming at them.
Who can forget the enthusiastic promise surrounding the election of Barack Obama, now plumbing new depths in public support? And following the warm embrace of millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike of the humble Archbishop of Buenos Aires, elected by his peers to help restore “faith” among the faithful in the oldest of institutions, the Church, there are some early signs that the bloom might be off the rose. Both President Obama and Pope Francis are men of good will and extraordinary skill, and yet the general erosion of trust in our leaders and the institutions they lead is effectively undermining their ability to deliver on their mandate.
One year ago, a 29-year-old, contract-hire intelligence analyst, Edward Snowden, was catapulted onto the front pages of newspapers the world over—hero to some, villain to others—as he leaked classified information on U.S. government surveillance programs. These leaks follow on the heels of the WikiLeaks disclosure of classified information leaked by Chelsea (Bradley) Manning four years ago. And the private sector has not been spared. Last year’s highly publicized hacking of Target’s computer network was one among many other such assaults on the privacy and identities of thousands of customers, presenting new challenges to the integrity of the burgeoning world of e-commerce.
Small wonder then that individuals have become less trustful of those in authority who now wield enormous, technology-enabled power. The last half century of technological advance has yielded extraordinary benefit in its empowerment, but that same technology threatens our health, security, livelihood, and our very identities.
The recent ruling by the European Court of Justice compelling Internet goliath Google to respect European users’ “right to be forgotten” is one more indication that a wary public has, at best, a conflicted view of the wonders of information technology. At the same time that a 2010 University of Maryland survey tells us that students today would rather go without food (or sex) than forgo their smartphones, we know that many consumers are trying to cut the tether. To wit, the recent French ruling that certain companies could not compel employees to “connect” beyond the confines of the regular work week offers one more indication of the growing pushback of technology’s reach into people’s lives.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon recently called trust the “ultimate asset” of a company, emphasizing that corporations need to manage consumer data responsibly. The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer shows how mercurial public trust can be, as who is trusted most has vacillated over the decade-long history of this index. This year the Trust Barometer indicates that the informed public once again trusts business more than government, just a few short years after Wall Street spawned the greatest threat to global financial stability since the Great Depression, leaving in its wake countless casualties. And technology firms, ironically, comprise the most trusted sectors of the economy, with the larger, more established of such firms less trusted than their less well-endowed peers. But while who’s up and who’s not in the public trust may vary, the simple fact that there are gaping holes in the fabric of trust likely comes as a surprise to no one.
Against this backdrop, 50 global senior executives, thought leaders, and policy figures gather this week in Cartagena, Colombia, to reflect in frank, off-the-record, intensive exchange for two days about today’s unprecedented leadership challenges and opportunities at the heart of this erosion of public trust. Convened around an open square with little protocol, these leaders will roll up their sleeves to tackle the theme of: “Power, Principle, and Progress: Enabling Leadership in the Midst of Disruptive Change.”
What better country to convene in than Colombia, one of the most vibrant economies in the hemisphere, with a newly re-elected president working to conclude an end to this country’s bloody 50-year struggle with the revolutionary FARC guerillas? Few places in the world reflect greater challenges to leadership than does Colombia, which is demonstrating that even the most gaping chasms in trust can be bridged with the right vision, courage, values and leadership.
This CEO Retreat, convened by A.T. Kearney’s Global Business Policy Council in every corner of the world for 23 years, responds to the need to stop, reflect, and refocus on the truly transformative opportunities before us, as both professionals and individuals. Technology can, and should, help us through life’s endless transactions—but we also need to step back and reclaim the mental space we need for those decisions that are fundamentally more important, and for building relationship-rich bonds that will ultimately enrich our lives. Over the next few days, we’ll consider issues at the heart of the erosion of trust and other topics critical to strategic leadership—sharing insights on how leaders can respond to this new dynamic. I look forward to sharing with you the most salient outtakes from the discussions that emerge in Cartagena.
Originally published on Forbes