In Politics and Business, the Winners of the 2020s Will Understand Values | Opinion

What can the past decade tell us about how the next one will unfold? Making predictions for even one year ahead is asking for trouble, let alone 10. But we can benefit from understanding why the world changed in the 2010s, and what that means for the 2020s.

Having spent the past decade reporting around the world, from over 150 countries, I believe the most significant change was a reassertion of values. People voted, bought and protested not merely on the basis of self-interest, but through an assertion of more deeply held fundamental beliefs.

You cannot understand the Arab Spring, revolution in Ukraine, rolling protests in France, the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit referendum, Xi Jinping's China or Narendra Modi's India without an appreciation of values. In politics or business, mastering them will be key to success in the next decade.

Indeed, many failed to see the political shocks of the decade coming because they gave insufficient attention to the importance of values. Voters endorsed Brexit, then Trump, despite establishment warnings that they would be poorer and see their nation's standing reduced. The Brexit campaign tapped into a long-held unease about European laws eroding Britain's independence, while Trump's campaign identified American voters who felt forgotten by the politics of globalization and successfully convinced them he is on their side.

Moderate political movements of both the left and right, used to winning through appeals to common sense and economic advantage, found themselves either spurned by voters or cannibalized by their most extreme elements. The Socialist Party in France, Germany's Social Democratic Party and India's National Congress, among others, saw their voting bases crater.

It was a decade in which politicians both stood and fell on their values. Jeremy Corbyn, heralded by supporters as embodying the true values of socialism, was rejected by the U.K. electorate, many of whom felt his values were not those of the country.

The forces upending politics were also felt in business. Companies that had focused to the exclusion of all else on creating shareholder value discovered that there was a cost to ignoring values—especially those of their employees, customers and investors. Tech companies, which in many ways defined the decade, found this especially: from Uber, whose cultural failings saw its acclaimed founder expelled by investors and hundreds of thousands of users delete the app, to Facebook, which has found itself under constant regulatory scrutiny over privacy fears and concerns about its role in elections.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump exits after holding an "Evangelicals for Trump" campaign event on January 3 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty

Businesses increasingly realize that values exist as something more than marketing statements for the annual report. There is a cost to contravening your own values, and a benefit to standing by them. When Delta Airlines cut ties with the National Rifle Association following the Parkland school shooting in 2018, in the face of political pressure that cost it $40 million in tax breaks, its CEO Ed Bastion offered a simple explanation: "Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale."

We can expect values to remain prevalent in the 2020s. As China continues its growth as the world's economic superpower, CEOs will increasingly be forced to decide how far they compromise on values such as free speech to access the opportunities of its market. Politicians who have suffered a values backlash must not simply bemoan the populists they oppose but understand their appeal and work harder on their own. The real question for the Democrats in the 2020 presidential election is not which candidate they choose but how to create a campaign that will resonate with the values of the electorate—standing for something, rather than simply against the iniquities of Trump.

The political and business winners of the 2020s will above all understand values—their own and those of the people they are appealing to: their voters, customers, employees and investors. They will appreciate that it is no longer enough to objectively win the political argument or offer the best deal. Being right only takes you so far. Today, you lose unless you are in touch.

Mandeep Rai is author of The Values Compass: What 101 Countries Teach Us About Purpose, Life and Leadership.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.