Why this should be business leaders’ ‘finest hour’

A Ukrainian family flees Russian-occupied territory. With unrest on the rise across the world, surveys show most people are looking to business for leadership.
Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

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 have a health crisis, an economic crisis, stubborn societal issues, racial inequity, an environmental time bomb, and geopolitical tensions. Every day seems to bring a new crisis, a new 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.”

My instinct goes naturally to that third option. Not that I have any misperceptions that this is an easy route. Not because taking on such responsibilities has traditionally been expected in our roles. But precisely because it is so critically needed, even though it will be hard.

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? 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. The bigger a team makes its purpose, the faster and more powerfully the energy level among that team rises.

I observed this recently as I was spending time with the leadership of a large insurance company. Their team was working on the pursuit of a specific, 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.

At that moment, the energy level went up 10X, as the teams felt more deeply connected to the mission and got excited about how meaningful this re-foundation could be, and how it could improve the lives 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. Knowing your true purpose shines an essential and irreplaceable light.

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:

  • By defining its market around all transactions, including cash, Mastercard has vastly expanded its market by addressing the needs of poor unbanked individuals worldwide, beyond only serving high-net-worth credit card customers.
  • 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.”
  • By pursuing its purpose to make the world cleaner, safer, and healthier, Ecolab has almost limitless opportunities to grow its business while helping protect people and preserve 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 addresses an important societal need that would have been out of the question if the strategy had been purely focused on maximizing store profitability.

Decades ago, a British prime minister led his nation when it stood as the last safeguard against a mortal enemy. 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.

Now, as it was then, the route ahead may not be entirely clear, and many obstacles have to be overcome. But let’s at least make the choice to be true to what we care deeply about and create a better future.

People everywhere are placing greater trust in business as the conduit to get this done. Each one of us has a choice to make–and we can choose to make this our “finest hour.”

Hubert Joly is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, the former chairman and CEO of Best Buy, and the best-selling author of The Heart of Business.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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