My life and career have taught me that work is where you bring about change, that we are called to make the world a better place. The events of the past twelve months—the continued racial inequities of our country, highlighted by police murder of unarmed Black people; the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of color and in economic hardship; and the violent insurrection we saw last week toward the institutions that Americans are taught to revere—have made me question the realism of these beliefs.
Within me, they’ve crescendoed toward an emotion I now identify as controlled rage.
When I joined Edelman, I found an organization built around the notion that business must act for the betterment of society. Even before I put a name to the principle, I viewed Edelman as a platform to drive social change through business—a place for what I know now was my controlled rage over societal inequities to manifest as bold, beautiful, and beneficial.
Last week, the day I put a name to my rage, I first saw our 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer data. It’s nothing less than a clarion call for business to act on the epidemic of controlled rage sweeping America:
- Business, once again, has emerged as the most trusted institution (54 percent)—up four points from 2020 and more trusted than government, NGOs or media.
- Employers carry a high degree of trust, with a whopping 72 percent of our U.S. survey respondents declaring that they trust their employers.
- “My Employer CEO” has joined the ranks of scientists and community peers as the leaders trusted to do what is right.
- And CEOs, unlike government and media, aren’t polarizing: “The CEO of my employer” is the only leader trusted by both those who voted for Biden and those who voted for Trump, according to post-election data.
Think about it: Over the past 18 months, we’ve called upon business to keep employees and customers safe amid a pandemic, redress the inequities of race in our country, safeguard our democratic institutions as they’re threatened by a violent mob and now, stifle the flow of dollars to politicians that egged on the events of last week.
For business leaders in America, the future of “taking a stand” means owning your corporate influence and embracing the responsibility that comes with it. For those that worry that saying something is political, it’s not: It’s patriotic.
As a descendent of those brought here against their will, my history with this country makes it difficult for me to robustly wave the flag. But this brand of patriotism—a patriotism where the most trusted institution takes a stand for all of us and gives voice to our controlled rage—is a patriotism that I now see and can embrace.
Look around you. Our research shows that the majority of Americans are asking for more from our institutions—a call that spans party lines. The asks are simple: Fair treatment, access to opportunity. Psychological, physical and financial stability. Good education, and a better future for our children.
As my friend Michael Steele told me when we first met: We all want the same things, across the aisle and across the country. Where we disagree is on how to get there. This is a moment for business—an institution that inherently serves a bipartisan constituency—to offer competence and solutions.
I’m inspired by our clients who take this mantle and carry it: Clients like YUM! Brands*, who created a program to train Black and brown employees to become franchisees, or like Unilever*, who used its lobbying apparatus to advocate fiercely against hair discrimination via the CROWN Act.
Fifty-plus years ago, a Black Southern preacher, supported by a group of Jewish intellectuals, tried to change the world. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he left a legacy that we celebrate broadly— and a vision that we have yet to realize.
Fast forward to last week. Fifty-plus years later, also in the American South, a Black preacher and a Jewish intellectual were elected to represent the people of Georgia, prevailing despite racist and anti-Semitic attacks.
The business community was different then than it is now. Much has been made of the move past shareholder primacy. Now is a moment for business to fully embrace the promise of stakeholder capitalism, putting the will for authentic social good behind those in our political ecosystem who look to drive change. In other words, what MLK didn’t have was the will of business behind him. Senators-elect Warnock and Ossoff, and their Republican colleagues, do. For my peers in the C-suite: This is a moment to recognize the aspirations of our collective controlled rage, to channel this energy into real and lasting change. This may not be how any of us expected to start the year 2021. But start we will.
Lisa Ross is U.S. COO and President of Edelman, Washington D.C.