Opinion

Opinion | Dana H. Born and Josh A. Goldstein

Business leaders can reverse the ‘implosion of trust’

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In September, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, issued his annual message. He titled it: “A call for moral courage in America.”

Few times in American history has there been a greater need for moral courage, for leaders to “build bridges, not walls.” The 2017 and 2018 Edelman Trust Barometers indicate a global “implosion of trust” across government, media, business, and NGOs, a trend to which the United States has been far from immune.

With Congress fractured by hyperpartisanship and the media hindered by accusations of bias and “fake news,” it appears unlikely that these two traditional sources of leadership can fully regain the trust of the American people in the months to come.

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But businesses — CEOs, in particular — may benefit from a comparative advantage: They can move quickly. They can act now, especially in areas where the president and Congress fail to take a stand. By exhibiting multidimensional leadership, by extending leadership into the public sector while sporting strong social consciences, CEOs can begin to regain the trust of the American people immediately.

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Recently, we have seen this in action. After the tragic Feb. 14 Florida shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, government officials sent “thoughts and prayers.” Editorial boards wrote about the need for gun reform. Business leaders, by contrast, changed policies quickly.

Edward Stack, the CEO and chairman of Dick’s Sporting Goods, published an open letter that said: “We have heard you. The nation has heard you.” The letter then announced that Dick’s Sporting Goods would no longer sell semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines, and it would raise the minimum purchase age to 21.

The increase in the purchase age by Dick’s, Walmart, and other retailers will not solve our nation’s gun problems. Within the private sector, big-box merchandisers account for just a small portion of AR-type rifle sales each year. If investors such as BlackRock, with leverage over gun makers and retailers, assert greater pressure, momentum will continue to grow.

We are still in the nascent stages of progress, but we see that business leaders have a significant opportunity to serve as a voice for the majority of Americans.

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Those who take action do not go unnoticed; Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, some of the leading faces of the gun reform movement today, recently thanked Dick’s, Walmart, BlackRock, and other companies in their New York Times advertisement for March For Our Lives. The march, set for March 24 in Washington, demands that a comprehensive gun reform bill be brought before Congress and builds on Wednesday’s nationwide school walkout.

Take climate change for a second issue. At a time when the majority of Americans are worried about global warming, the United States has regressed. Under the Trump administration, the United States has withdrawn from the Paris agreement. Furthermore, the president’s 2019 budget proposal includes slashing the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 34 percent of its current level.

As Trump steps back, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, has leaned in. Polman is using his voice to advocate for the UN’s sustainable development goals, and he chairs the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

He also uses his private sector role for multidimensional leadership. Under Polman, Unilever, a company that employs 169,000 people and netted approximately $72.8 billion in 2016 sales, has set a goal to halve the environmental impact of the creation and use of its products by 2030. The company publishes the amount of CO2 it emits and the amount of disposal waste it produces from manufacturing. Polman tackles sustainable living head-on.

Polman thinks beyond the bottom line and acts with moral courage, leading in the private and public sectors. He will not solve global warming alone, but his efforts make a symbolic and substantive difference nevertheless.

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A third example is the case of Ken Frazier. After a man drove through a crowd of counterprotesters responding to white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, President Trump said, “There is blame on both sides.” Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, a $40 billion company leading the pharmaceutical industry, disagreed.

Frazier resigned from the president’s American Manufacturing Council and said, “As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

As Harvard Business School professor Bill George has pointed out, Ken Frazier is driven by both business imperative and by moral leadership. And he’s consistent. Ron Klain, Obama’s “Ebola czar,” tweeted during the Ebola crisis that Frazier “put aside the bottom line to speed vaccine work.”

In a class on public policy, you often hear public and private actors discussed as discrete. Business leaders operate on market principles, seeking growth and profitability, while government and public leaders reflect the will of constituents, seeking to keep market forces in balance.

Stack, Polman, and Frazier illustrate a new paradigm. Stack is a successful retailer and a timely moral voice. Polman views himself as a business leader and as an environmental champion. Frazier acts as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and as an advocate of justice. By viewing themselves as more than the one- or two-word term they use on the “occupation” line of a form, Stack, Polman, Frazier, and others fill the holes left by the traditional branches of government and the fourth estate.

Some may contend that this gives too much credit to business leaders. Social conscience is not the only explanation for CEO activism. Business leaders may genuinely believe in the cause, or they may act because the social action they advocate benefits their business or because they fear backlash from failing to do so. Likely, it is some combination of these three forces at play.

We will never entirely know what motivates these CEOs. That might be OK — no matter the underlying rationale, the model they present is still one worth emulating.

Sources of our nation’s worry will not go away tomorrow. But by following in the footsteps of CEOs who have embraced the power of “and” — by thinking of ourselves as students and activists, religious leaders and advocates, professors and influencers — we won’t need to wait on Congress or the president for leaders we trust.

Dana H. Born is co-director of the Center for Public Leadership and chair of the Senior Executive Fellows Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Josh A. Goldstein is a graduate student in international relations at Oxford University.