Business takes charge

November 13, 2014, 12:00 PM UTC
Alan Murray
contract Armin Harris
Photograph by Wesley Mann for Fortune

I voted in the midterms, but it wasn’t very satisfying. I used to think elections were the way we addressed society’s most pressing problems. No longer. Now they are like sporting events: 53–47. Go, team.

There are, of course, plenty of pressing problems and some outsize opportunities that could use serious bipartisan attention. Republican and Democratic leaders could, if they were so inclined, devise a long-term growth strategy that addresses education, regulation, immigration, and taxation in practical and non-ideological ways. Maryland congressman John Delaney, a Democrat and a successful businessman, has a proposal to finance improvements in infrastructure with repatriated corporate earnings that is an example of a smart policy that offers political benefits to both sides.

I could give other examples—but why bother? If recent elections are any guide, our politicians will spend a few days feigning bipartisan intentions and then revert to norm. Washington’s ambitions have tapered to the vanishing point.

Contrast that with the supersize ambitions of the man chosen as Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year, Google CEO Larry Page.

Page isn’t content with Google’s (GOOG) original audacious goal—to organize all the world’s information. He has systematically invested in initiatives to address the world’s—the universe’s—biggest challenges. He wants to provide broadband to everyone via atmospheric balloons, reinvent transportation with driverless cars, solve the energy and environment conundrum with airborne wind farms, and cure cancer in the bargain. Business guru Michael Porter says the “essence of strategy is deciding what not to do.” Page has thrown that maxim out the window. He wants to do it all.

And it’s not just Page. The runner-up on this year’s list is Apple’s (AAPL) Tim Cook, who isn’t content with having disrupted the music, telephone, and computer industries; he now wants to fix the payments business as well. Behind him is Gilead’s John Martin, whose drugs are on their way to eliminating an entire disease—hepatitis C, which affects more than 130 million people. Further down the line is Elizabeth Holmes, whose company, Theranos, may do more to reduce health care costs than three decades of flailing governmental efforts. And then there’s last year’s winner, Elon Musk, who is reinventing the auto industry and creating the space-travel industry at the same time.

Given that stark contrast, it is not surprising the public has become so cynical about government. But it is surprising that people remain so cynical about business.

In many ways we are in a golden era for business. The best CEOs I talk with these days are looking well beyond next quarter’s financial results. They want to make money for themselves and for their shareholders. But they are in a fierce global competition that forces them to look down the road for the next big disruptive idea. And they are in a battle for talent among workers who, more than ever before, want to feel good about where they are working. (It’s no coincidence that Page’s Google consistently tops our Best Companies to Work For list.) The invisible hand, in these cases, is working. By pursuing their companies’ long-term interests, these CEOs are serving society.

Yet the public doesn’t see it. Polls earlier this year by the Pew Research ­Center—my base before joining Fortune in August—found that 78% of Americans believe “there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies,” 56% believe “corporations make too much profit,” and most disagree with the notion that corporations “generally strike a balance between making a profit and serving the public interest.”

That’s the political challenge business must address. The CEOs celebrated in this year’s Businessperson of the Year are doing their part.

This story is from the December 1, 2014 issue of Fortune.

Read More

CryptocurrencyLeadershipInvestingClimate ChangeMost Powerful Women