As graduation season rolls around, graduates looking to pursue a career in business are entering what’s perhaps one of the most challenging times in history to be a leader. It is in that context that they will be tested intellectually, emotionally, and perhaps spiritually, as we live in a deeply polarized world. Extremist voices dominate the news of the day, and consequently much of the conversation.
In the U.S. presidential race, the one thing all candidates seem to agree on is vilifying business. The public already held business leaders in low regard after the 2008 financial crisis, and the constant political rhetoric reinforces the image of the greedy, ambitious, and self-centered leader out for only his or her financial gain.
True, the business community isn’t blameless in the public’s negative perception. We have seen examples in recent years of corporate leaders who have acted out of self-interest and greed. However, for every Bernie Madoff there is also a Paul Polman or a Melinda Gates: leaders who put others before themselves.
The challenge for many graduates is to restore the public confidence in business again. Doing so means exemplifying the integrity to win trust. For that, I offer the following advice:
Don’t put yourself first
Instead, seek to draw the strengths out of others. Research has shown time and time again that diverse teams working toward a common goal will outperform those whose team members are more alike.
Be yourself and encourage others to do the same
People operate at their best when they are authentic. Don’t clone others’ identities or ideas just because they’ve been proven successful. It might seem more efficient to do it that way, but innovation requires thinking from different viewpoints.
Know your values and stick to them
The intersection between business and politics has blurred, and business leaders are increasingly stepping in to protect their talent base from being marginalized by politicians seeking gains at the expense of someone’s gender identity, nationality, or religious beliefs. Be ready to stand up for the principles you believe in. It is your job to protect more than the bottom line of a company.
Finally, don’t ever underestimate the power of business as a transformational engine. Business connects society in ways that governments and other entities can’t. Most people wouldn’t dispute that power, but many might dispute that it is being used for good.
My hope is that graduates leave with the kind of leadership skills that can bring very different people together to transform communities, solve tough problems, and make the world a better place. It’s this type of leadership America desperately needs in today’s increasingly polarized world.
Bill Boulding is dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.