A Leap of Faith: Confessions from Davos

By Jim Wallis 1-28-2014
Jim Wallis speaking at the World Economic Forum
Jim Wallis speaking at the World Economic Forum

"We are perhaps among the most included in this global economy. So how will the most included reach out to the most excluded this year?"

Editor’s Note: The following text and video is from Jim Wallis’ closing talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling those in positions of leadership to implement values that benefit the common good.

In our opening session for this 2014 annual meeting, we heard a letter read to us from Pope Francis, a leader who has captured the attention of the world. He called us here to “deeper reflection” and to “reshaping the world.” He said something quite striking, “I ask you to insure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it.”

So, to that deeper reflection: I believe that for many of us here at Davos, there was a moment — a remark from a session, a smaller discussion, a meal interaction, a personal conversation, or a walk in the snow — that made us think and feel some things we don’t normally focus on in our day-to-day environment back home. It could have been an insight, a new angle or framework, a challenge, or a reminder of things lost — something that struck you more deeply than just more talk and made an impact on you. Often these insightful moments are about our values, or challenge our values, or bring us back to a moral compass that we have, or would like to have, or miss from earlier in our lives.

I often get pulled aside for conversations here, in a corner or over a cup of coffee, about deep ethical concerns that arise from these moments of reflection. Business and other leaders mention their religious backgrounds, moral sensibilities, or moral qualms about something they are doing or not doing, or something they are uncomfortable with. I have come to think of these personal conversations as my “Davos confessionals.”

This year, we have had some morning sessions on the dilemmas of ethics and values and even taken some time for meditation — sometimes called mindfulness. Professor Klaus Schwab says that leaders must have soul — to guide values. These morning reflections were a pause at the beginning of the day to help find our way back to our moral compass. So I have come to think of these morning pauses as “Davos Devotionals.”

They revealed some of the obstacles that keep Davos participants from implementing their values back in their work places and regular life. I hear about those often at Davos. Leaders tell me something that inspired them; then I ask how they are implementing that back home in their work place — and, too often, they say “I can’t do that.” That is what has to change, and what I want you to think about as we close.

This closing session is called “Leap of Faith,” with spoken word and music, which goes to the heart. It well describes the bold leap that often must be taken to carry out the best expression of the World Economic Forum’s mission statement — to improve the state of the world. The transformation of the world, which many of us long to see, requires the changing of frameworks, ethics, and, most of all, our decisions; and that will not happen without taking risks, a true leap of faith.

Some of the values that are most crucial now, that our recently composed New Social Covenant identifies are human dignity, thecommon good, and stewardship. How do we, as decision makers, treat the people our institutions impact, directly or indirectly, as human beings and not as mere commodities? How can our supply chains become value chains?

Is our primary metric our isolated bubble, our executive team, our shareholders’ quarterly profit and loss statements? Or do we measure our success by the ancient idea of the common good? Corporations, governments, and institutions of all kinds are in fact given their charter, their very existence with the hope that they will seek the common good. But what happens when the invisible hand of the market lets go of the common good? That’s a deep question. How do we restore the common good and even make that part of our bottom line? What does it mean to seek human dignity for all the many stakeholders of our global economy?

And how does the ethic of stewardship, care for both our planet and our posterity, compared to the short-termism of market fundamentalism? Do we only track our quarterly profit and loss statements or do we go deeper, moving closer toward a value of indigenous people: judging success by how our decisions impact the seventh generation out?

As we now close this year, I want to call for bold action, and encourage our better instincts that we were reminded of here. What we most need is leadership on behalf of values where it matters most, where it is most difficult, and may even cost you a great deal — leadership in the place where you can have the greatest impact. So I am calling this the Davos “call,” to measure ourselves in different ways.

Pope Francis asked us to keep in mind those who are the most excluded from the global economy. And we have spoken here of the multitudes of those still socially excluded. We are perhaps among the most included in this global economy. So how will the most included reach out to the most excluded this year? All our prophets have said that the moral measure of a society — is not its GDP, military firepower, or the success of its popular culture — but, rather, how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable. That’s the real moral test.

So I close by speaking of courage and hope — the two most important elements for improving the state of the world. Courage is simply to act on what you know to be right, and a willingness to sacrifice for your values. Or else those values are really of little use. Skills are not the deepest form of leadership; sacrifice is, as Nelson Mandela has shown us.

The Scriptures say that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Religion has no monopoly on morality, but our hope is bound up with whatever we call faith. My paraphrase of that biblical text is this: hope means believing despite the evidence, and watching the evidence change. Mandela showed us how to do that too.

We all know that trust in our economic and political institutions has sunk to dangerous levels. What has been lost must now be found again. Pope Francis is teaching us how trust can be restored by leaders with a vision to inspire, and who practice a genuine humility and moral authenticity. As we leave, I ask you to not just consider your career, but also your vocation and the vocation of your company or organization.

When we return home, we will all be confronted with the tyranny of the urgent, which can make us forget what is morally urgent. So I ask you now, as we close this special week together, to do that deeper reflection the pope called us to, to ask yourself what is one thing that you will commit to, right here and now — to improve the state of the world.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners . His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE . Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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