"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” —William Shakespeare
In a year marked by a brutal pandemic, a global outcry over systemic racism, growing income inequality and a looming climate crisis, business leaders—of companies both large and small—acted with agility and adaptability to steer their companies and employees through the greatest crisis of the last half-century. Many businesses not only endured the turmoil but are now poised to emerge stronger and more resilient.
But how? Many chief executives and the businesses they lead—even those in some of the hardest hit industries—pivoted quickly to address the pandemic head on, serving employees, customers and communities in unexpected ways. The examples are striking.
To help its displaced workers find jobs, Hilton Hotels created a partnership with several companies including Amazon, Albertsons and CVS to place thousands of Hilton employees in temporary positions around the globe, while continuing to provide health coverage for its furloughed employees. Pharmaceutical giants Merck and Johnson & Johnson joined forces to boost Covid-19 vaccine supply and speed the delivery of shots. And Medtronic, FedEx and others are now assisting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Task Force on Pandemic Response to bring ventilators to India and address urgent Covid-19 needs around the world. In all cases, companies came together to work for the common good.
Actions like these affirmed “My Employer” (77 percent) and Business (62 percent) as the most trusted institutions in Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer Spring Update: A World in Trauma—far ahead of Government (56 percent), NGOs (58 percent) and Media (51 percent). Likewise, our study revealed that people believe Business has outperformed Government in addressing big societal challenges, including those that have long been seen as the purview of Government. Today, the mantle of leadership is being thrust on Business to lead on everything from the response to public health and safety concerns to driving economic growth and job creation to addressing systemic inequities and climate change.
The multiplying expectations being placed on the private sector threatens to overwhelm corporate executives. On average, nearly eight-in-10 employees expect their employer to actively address vaccine hesitancy, climate change, information quality, racism, border security and automation that threatens jobs. Pressure is also mounting from outside stakeholders for Businesses to act: 62 percent of respondents want Business to hold Government accountable, indicating that CEOs are acting appropriately when they criticize laws passed by government officials if they believe the laws are discriminatory. Moreover, in every one of the 14 countries surveyed, the majority of respondents believe that their country cannot overcome its societal challenges without the active involvement of Business.
But the willingness of CEOs to bear the burden of these expanding expectations may be a bridge too far. When asked in a recent Fortune magazine survey of chief executives whether they should continue to weigh in on social and political issues, CEOs were split down the middle. Fifty percent agreed that they should continue to speak out on issues of the day, while 50 percent said they “have recently gotten too involved in commenting on social and political issues and need to pull back.”
What’s clear is today’s corporate leaders are expected to carry the burden of leadership in a world still reeling from Covid-19 and troubling societal issues. But are corporate leaders equipped to accept this burden of responsibility—or should they even do so?
The reality is there is no CEO powerful enough to alone fix the problems of our education or healthcare systems or the environment or racism. And while Government has fallen from its trust-bubble pedestal of last spring, people in both developed and developing markets are looking to Government more than any other institution to step up and lead the world to a better place. Corporate leaders would be setting themselves up for failure if they tried to go it alone on broader societal issues in the long term.
But it is a new era for businesses—an era of accountability to stakeholders, and one where actions matter more than words. It starts with getting one’s own house in order, recognizing the trust that has been granted to them—and realizing what it takes to uphold that trust in a world of shifting expectations.