Opinion: In 2021, business needs to step into our society’s leadership void
By Ritch Eich
A Pew Research Center survey in 2019 asked Americans how they envisioned the United States in 2050. Pessimism reigned as people predicted that healthcare would be harder to afford, senior citizens would struggle to survive, the economy would weaken, and the state of the environment would deteriorate. Most respondents expressed little confidence that today’s leaders could find solutions.
No matter which side of the political fence you’re on, it seems we can all agree that there has been a vacuum of leadership recently in Washington and in state politics, places where America has traditionally looked for its leaders. Even when sound leadership is shown on one side or the other, we’ve become so politically divided as a nation that half of us cannot acknowledge it.
Perhaps it’s time for other sectors to step up. Is it naïve to suggest, for example, that the business community might become the stage we look to for our new models of leadership?
Americans have always respected successful business people and given them a willing ear. Business already has a structure in place for advancing and recognizing leaders. Best of all, business is apolitical. We all use FedEx—Democrats and Republicans alike. Coca Cola doesn’t divide; it unites. When a great business leader speaks, we can all hear his or her message.
Might business fill in today’s leadership gap by putting forth leaders who exhibit traits that can heal and inspire our country at this critical time when confidence is so low?
What are those traits? Some of the qualities we desperately need to see in our new leaders are:
• Values-driven: Leaders must be guided, once again, by principles and ideals, not just by doing whatever it takes to win in the moment.
• Honest: Truth and ethics must matter again. Leaders must be willing to speak the truth and rely on actual facts, not self-interested claims masquerading as facts. Leaders must stand for the truth, even when it costs them—knowing that, in the end, standing for the truth builds trust.
• Empathic: Leadership must show that it cares about customers, suppliers and employees, not just profits. That means listening to real people and making changes that matter to people’s lives. Business needs to model a “people and profits” mentality.
• Respectful: Business leaders need to show respect for their customers, for their competitors, for their industry, for the law, and for the planet. The Golden Rule must be brought back into vogue.
• Future-oriented: Finally, leaders must stand for tomorrow, instead of focusing only on today. They can no longer pursue short-term profits at the expense of the future. They must step in where government has failed, building the sustainable technologies we need and showing us all how it’s done.
Planning for the future is critical in another way. The business world can, and should, become an incubator for developing tomorrow’s leadership. As I outline in my recent book, “Leading with Grit, Grace & Gratitude,” organizations must consciously and carefully strengthen their leadership pipelines and grow their pool of future leaders.
There are two things leaders can do to develop leadership pipelines and plan for the future:
• Commit to becoming “teaching” organizations by making a pledge to teach managers how to become leaders. The benefit of such commitment should be apparent: presidents, CEOs, and directors who take time to train and guide their lieutenants ultimately experience more success in driving operating performance. Plus, employee retention is increased and costs are reduced in organizations that leverage the talent of their teams.
• Develop a corporate culture that builds future leaders from within. For many organizations, it often seems more expedient to hire young talent from “known” entities including top schools, blue-chip companies, or well-known consulting firms. While doing so often leads to short-term success, such recruiting strategies rarely deliver lasting results and true business innovation.
The hub of a winning organization should consist of internally-developed leaders who understand the company’s business strategy and are steeped in its culture—people who possess the internal credibility to drive insightful change.
As 2021 looms large and America looks for a way to move forward from a year that has been “formidable” to say the least, let’s challenge ourselves as business leaders to provide leadership we can all be proud of.
• Ritch K. Eich, Ph.D, is a retired captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve, past chairman of the Los Robles Hospital board of trustees and former chief of public affairs for Blue Shield of California.