"Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” — Publilius Syrus

A few years back, a prominent CEO told me that the Chief Executive Officer role is not for the faint-hearted. These words ring truer today as CEOs confront unprecedented challenges and a new mandate to lead.

It is no wonder. The coronavirus has broken down barriers that for generations delineated our work lives from personal lives. CEOs have had to steer their companies and people through great uncertainty and rising anxiety, while also stepping in to fill the void when other societal institutions have faltered in addressing societal concerns.

What is clear, is that circumstances have thrown CEOs into new and uncharted waters. This is underscored in the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, which reveals that business is the institution most trusted (61 percent) to lead on a range of vexing issues. Sixty-eight percent of respondents expect CEOs to fill the void left by government in fixing societal problems, while 65 percent feel CEOs should be as accountable to the public as they are to their shareholders.

Eighty-six percent are looking for CEOs to lead on such issues as the pandemic’s impact, job loss due to automation and broader societal issues, like climate change and the continuing struggle for racial justice.

Our study also revealed how fears over the pandemic and mounting job loss have collided with an infodemic of misinformation and distortion, complicating the path forward. Covid-19 has accelerated job loss anxieties (84 percent), outranking even fear of contracting the virus (65 percent), yet Covid-19 fears are also hindering a return to the workplace with 58 percent of those staying home doing so out of concerns over becoming infected.

Compounding the problem: People do not know whom to believe. Trust in all news sources—traditional, social and search—has reached all-time lows. Media is viewed as more concerned with advancing an ideology or partisan positions (59 percent) than informing the public.  Even more troubling, people feel they are being deliberately misled by journalists (59 percent), government leaders (57 percent) and business leaders (56 percent). CEOs have also surrendered trust as spokespeople year-over-year (-4 percent).

While trust in business and CEOs has receded, business remains the only one rated as both competent and ethical. Thus, people are increasingly looking to their employers for reliable information. Among information sources, "My Employer" now ranks as most trusted (61 percent) followed by national government (58 percent) and media reports (57 percent). In the U.S., ‘My Employer’s’ CEO is the only leader both Trump and Biden voters trust.

Considering all this, how should CEOs now lead?  

Lead by embracing an expanded mandate. CEOs must act on a broader set of concerns for the good of their companies and society. This includes greater incorporation of sustainability into business planning and reporting, taking action to address discrimination and systemic racism, upskilling workers whose jobs are threatened by automation, advancing diversity, equity and inclusion and safeguarding information integrity.

Lead with trustworthy content. All institutions – business, government, NGOs and media – must pledge to provide truthful and reliable information. CEOs can lead by example by providing trusted information, starting with employees. This is especially important in building trust in vaccines. Advocacy and education, not imposing mandatory vaccine requirements, are the way to go.

Lead with facts. Act with empathy.  CEOs must be empathetic, use reliable facts and put the human experience at the center of responding to the needs of employees, customers, business partners and other stakeholders while furthering the betterment of society. 

Lead by forging partnerships. As much as people expect business to lead, business cannot go at it alone. To help solve the biggest problems facing the world today, CEOs must partner with government, NGOs and others to collectively expand economic opportunity, reskill workers for the future and address social injustice.

In The Age of Uncertainty, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” Indeed, the role of the CEO is not for the faint of heart.

Dave Samson is Global Vice Chairman of Corporate Affairs