Jeff De Cagna

Executive Advisor, Foresight First LLC

Jun 11, 2021
Published on: Association Adviser
2 min read

Author’s Note: This column is the first in a three-part series I will write on the ethical dimensions of the board’s duty of foresight. The columns in this series will be available as a free PDF eBook in mid-August. If you would like to be notified when the eBook is ready for download, please complete this form.

This decade’s first 500+ days have been defined by the disruptive impact of a severe global public health crisis that is in a new phase and yet is still far from over. The COVID-19 pandemic’s enduring influence is just one of the major forces of turbulence that associations will confront in the years ahead. These forces include (but are not limited to) the impact of accelerating adoption of AI/automation technologies on work and other human activities, the worsening climate crisis, the surge in human inequality, and the rise of ideological extremism at home and around the world. Each of these forces on their own, as well as the dynamic interactions among them, raises profound ethical questions and dilemmas that association decision-makers will need to confront sooner rather than later.

In this context of heightened uncertainty, volatility, and risk, it is crucial for board directors and officers to understand that the duty of foresight, i.e., the shared commitment that association boards make to learn with the future, is the highest responsibility they have to their associations and a moral obligation to their stakeholders and successors. Let’s consider why.

The Ethical Dimensions

As we have seen quite clearly since the beginning of 2020, the future does not wait for us. The pandemic and its follow-on consequences have confirmed my 2019 description of this decade as The Turbulent Twenties much sooner than anyone expected. As a result, every complex and consequential decision that association boards were going to face in this decade has been pushed forward by at least 36 months, if not more. Since each of these difficult board decisions will have significant ethical dimensions, it would be highly unethical for today’s boards to continue the common practice of shifting the burden for addressing systemic failures and wicked problems to their successors. Through the duty of foresight, however, current decision-makers can build a higher standard of stewardship, governing, and foresight [SGF] around a strong ethical core that will help them fulfill their responsibility to shape different and better association/ecosystem futures for the benefit of stakeholders and successors.

Every complex and consequential decision that association boards were going to face in this decade has been pushed forward by at least 36 months, if not more. Since each of these difficult board decisions will have significant ethical dimensions, it would be highly unethical for today’s boards to continue the common practice of shifting the burden for addressing systemic failures and wicked problems to their successors.

Pursuing the board’s duty of foresight is a powerful SGF next practice and an ethical choice that association boards must make every day. At a time when the ability of traditional societal institutions to shape positive futures is in doubt, association boards can reassert their legitimacy and renew the bonds of trust with both stakeholders and successors by making the affirmative choice to focus their attention on three ethical dimensions of the duty of foresight:

Unwavering respect for human dignity

The current respite from pandemic lockdown in the United States has intensified talk of the “return to normal.” While we are all eager to recapture the familiar in our daily lives, we must force ourselves to remember that the pre-pandemic normal was built over many decades on a widespread acceptance of climate destruction, systemic discrimination, marginalization, and oppression, and massive inequality along multiple dimensions. For the rest of this decade and beyond, we cannot allow our past complacency to be an obstacle to making the renewal and preservation of human dignity a vital imperative.

By embracing the duty of foresight, association boards can demonstrate their unwavering respect for human dignity. Indeed, the full integration of the duty of foresight into the board’s ways of thinking and acting is an explicit expression of solidarity with the diverse stakeholders and successors who will be the long-term beneficiaries of the future-focused decisions that boards will make.

The full integration of the duty of foresight into the board’s ways of thinking and acting is an explicit expression of solidarity with the diverse stakeholders and successors who will be the long-term beneficiaries of the future-focused decisions that boards will make.

Consistent focus on bringing about good/not causing harm

As association boards consider their long-term decision-making, the connected ethical principles of beneficence (taking actions that bring about good for others), and non-maleficence (avoiding actions that bring about harm for others and acting to minimize harm when it is unavoidable) must be at the center. The stark contrast between the US response to COVID-19 in 2020 versus the first half of 2021 has provided a clear and agonizing example of how the choice to ignore or observe these ethical principles can be a literal matter of life or death. Throughout the rest of this decade, association boards will face similar high-stakes decisions that will demand a consistently ethical orientation toward the future.

By adopting the duty of foresight as a next practice, association boards will focus their attention on disciplined learning with the future. Through rigorous sense-making and meaning-making, boards will be able to anticipate the potential risks of harm to stakeholders and successors and create a space in which to explore decision-making alternatives for preventing it or limiting its detrimental impact.

Striving for fairness and justice

In the context of the pre-pandemic status quo, we resigned ourselves to the fundamentally unfair and unjust nature of life. In today’s irrevocably-altered world, however, we can no longer look away from the decades-long assault on human dignity and the manifest harm that has been inflicted on far too many of our fellow human beings at home and abroad. Shaping a different and better future means working to end that suffering by doing everything possible to ensure the future is more diverse, equitable, ethical, humane, and inclusive.

For various reasons, association boards may not believe it is their place to participate in building a fairer and more just world, or that they have any meaningful contributions to make to the effort. In fact, the opposite is true. As a moral obligation to stakeholders and successors, the duty of foresight challenges boards to situate their work in the future, build a consistent practice of foresight, and marshal the collective agency required to strive for greater fairness and justice.

The duty of foresight challenges boards to situate their work in the future, build a consistent practice of foresight, and marshal the collective agency required to strive for greater fairness and justice.

Part II Preview

In my next column, I will explore how the ethical dimensions of the board’s duty of foresight require association boards to think differently about the fiduciary duties of care, loyalty, and obedience.