Why this should be business leaders’ ‘finest hour’

I am an eternal optimist, but over the last couple of years, I’ve had to accept this and say it out loud: The world we live in is not working. We are facing a crisis in our health, economic, and social conditions. There are also persistent societal issues, racism, environmental dangers, and geopolitical tensions. Every day seems like a new crisis or concern.

Adding to the gloom is that people around the world have increasingly concluded that governments will not–or cannot–step up in a sufficient fashion to address today’s major issues. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer surveyed 36,000 people around the world and found that business is the most trusted institution at 61% (ahead of NGOs at 59%, government at 52%, and media at 50%), with 77% saying they trust “my employer.”

In the face of this, business leaders–any leader for that matter–have three options: they can choose to surrender and become more distressed, they can try and treat some of these issues the best they can at the margin, or they can decide to make this time their “finest hour.”

This third option is what my instinct tells me to choose. This is not because I think it’s an easy way to go. This is not because it has been expected of us to assume such responsibilities in our jobs. However, it is essential that it be done even though it can be difficult.

An incredibly powerful step for leaders is to define a higher purpose for their organization and make its pursuit the core of their organization’s focus and strategy.

In The Heart of Business, I have outlined how a company’s purpose can be found at the intersection of four circles: what the world needs, what the company is uniquely good at, what its team is passionate about, and how to make money.

The good news is: Pursuing a higher purpose that includes helping solve some of the world’s biggest challenges is not only impactful–it can also expand growth opportunities and lift an organization’s energy as teams rise to the occasion and embrace the chance to make a meaningful, tangible, and positive difference. I’ve personally seen this phenomenon. This phenomenon is evident when a team is more focused on its goal, and the team’s energy levels rise faster and stronger.

While visiting a large insurance company, I witnessed this phenomenon. Their team was working towards a social impact business initiative. At some point, the discussion moved from that specific initiative to considering a broader, more fundamental re-foundation of the company around the original purpose of their industry–to provide protection against catastrophic losses and enable everyone to live a more worry-free life–and therefore take more risk, which fuels economic growth.

That moment saw the energy level rise 10x as the teams felt more connected with the mission and became more excited about the possibilities of a re-foundation and the positive impact it could have on the lives and livelihoods of millions.

Similarly, as I was speaking with the CEO of a company that deals with global water issues, the same elevation of engagement, excitement, and energy happened when we again zeroed in on the company’s mission and ability to “save the world.”

It can be so easy to assume–or even lose sight of–the core reason an organization exists in the first place, that we make it unnecessarily hard on ourselves to move forward with courage and confidence. It is essential to know your true purpose.

And here’s some more good news: High energy may be great–but it’s even greater because it can create compelling growth opportunities. By defining its business around a noble purpose rather than the products or services it sells, not only can a company capture a bigger share of the pie–but it can also pursue a bigger pie. Here are some examples.

  • Mastercard has significantly expanded its market, focusing on all transactions including cash. It also serves high-net worth credit card customers and does not only serve those who are wealthy.
  • PayPal’s purpose of democratizing financial services ensures that everyone, regardless of background or economic standing, can access affordable, convenient, and secure products and services to take control of their financial lives. By helping the under-served and the unbanked, PayPal has opened new revenue streams while making it less “expensive to be poor.”
  • Ecolab’s mission is to make the world healthier, safer and cleaner. It has virtually limitless potential to grow its business, while protecting people and conserving vital resources.
  • Because of its purpose to enrich lives through technology–not to simply exist as a retailer–Best Buy accelerated its growth strategy in part by helping aging seniors retain their home-based independence. This is a solution to a critical societal need.

A British prime minister was the leader of his country when it stood as the last defense against a dying enemy, decades ago. He inspired his compatriots to “brace themselves for their duties” so that “men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

While we may not be facing the terrors of global war in our business roles, the multiple challenges (some of which are perfectly existential) that are percolating and persisting across all elements of our society leave us with either sad resignation and malaise, or clear intent and vigor to lead the way into what Churchill so aptly described as the “broad sunlit uplands” of progress, freedom, and success.

The road ahead is not as clear now, but it was back then. There are many hurdles to overcome. But let’s at least make the choice to be true to what we care deeply about and create a better future.

Businesses are increasingly trusted by people all over the world to deliver this. Each one of us has a choice to make–and we can choose to make this our “finest hour.”

Hubert Joly is a Harvard Business School senior lecturer. He was the former chairman and CEO at Best Buy. The Heart of Business.’s commentary pieces do not reflect the opinions or beliefs of the author. Fortune.

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