The case for a better us

Just one year ago we were engaged in conversations over what the future “new normal” would look like. It seems long ago.

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

We have entered a new chapter in history, a new future, a new normal. And it looks bleak. Our time will be remembered in the history books as the time of a perfect storm: war, sanctions, lockdowns, rising inflation, recession, and the list can go on. We are called to respond to unprecedented challenges and we need to be at our best as individuals, communities and species.

Business, too, is called to express its best version. Not only organizations have to respond to changes in the very fundamentals of the markets, but they need to give answers to requests that grow louder by the day. Amid the decline of political ideologies and religions, the public is looking at companies and brands in search of meaning, and possibly of a way out of the mess we are caught in.

Some past stories give us hope that business can help. It is comforting to look at the transformation that Unilever experienced under the leadership of Paul Polman. Patagonia makes for almost a cliché in any conversation about business for good, with its founder Yvon Chouinard in the role of a semi-god of sustainability. And there are stories of smaller businesses that are less known but equally inspiring. A few years ago, the young CEO of Gravity Payments, Dan Price, became instantly famous for his decision to pay his employees a minimum wage of $70.000. Many thought that Price was on the highway that leads to failure, others predicted his soon to come bankruptcy and most thought that business is to be run in different, more serious ways. More than a decade passed and Gravity Payments did not go bankrupt: it thrives instead.

The red line that unifies these stories, is the inspiration of a leader that ignites the power of a crowd. Paul Polman found a fertile ground in a corporation that is immense in dimensions. His leutenants could have gone a different way, but decided to gather around his compelling vision. On a similar note, Yvon Chouinard is a visionary genius, but his quest to save the planet could not generate such a successful business if the men and women in his team did not back him up with grounded practicality.

More business leaders are raising their voices, offering visions and solutions to problems and crises. Bill Gates, Tim Cook, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel: the list is long. These leaders are stepping up as new Moseses that show us the way out of Egypt. They come with a worldview and ask us to join them on a journey to a promised land that we cannot yet make out. We look at them in awe and admiration, but a voice within tells us that something is not perfect. What is it?

Take Musk’s buy out of Twitter, for instance. It was done with a specific moral claim based on his understanding of freedom of speech. We can agree or disagree with Musk, but a more general question comes to mind: should one person be the guardian of freedom of speech? Is that safe?

One could confidently propose that it is wiser to cling to the wisdom of the crowds on these types of matters, because it would reflect a general moral compass that emerges as the result of different views and sentiments. A very agreeable position and one that I subscribe