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Uncertainty at the World Economic Forum: How Can Business Leaders Regain Trust?

Today’s business leaders … are looking beyond quarterly growth targets. But there is less clarity—either from the private sector, among regulators or among investors—about what this new era entails for business. — Report from the World Economic Forum
Another year of the World Economic Forum (WEF) has come to a close, and spirits are running high—for the moment. With the euro crisis avoided, the fiscal cliff averted and the recent upswing in markets, the attention in Davos has shifted from responding to crises to “restoring economic dynamism.” World Economic Forum Image via www.weforum.org Of course, this introduces a new laundry list of problems, among them, the dangerous lack of trust citizens have in business and government leaders. What those at Davos euphemistically called “trust shocks,” the Economist reports as a much larger problem:
A survey by Edelman, a public-relations firm, finds that only 18% of people trust business leaders to tell the truth. For political leaders, the figure is 13%.
That’s more than intermittent shocks; that’s a chronic disease. The WEF doesn’t know what to do. They fall back on the familiar terms of accountability and transparency, but it’s clear that values and morals are a foreign language to most of these world leaders. To rebuild trust, they suggest companies “harness the profit motive to serve the public interest.” Ironically, trust can only come from inverting those goals. Great entrepreneurs don’t start with an idea of how to make money and then hope to harness that for the benefit of others. They start by providing a service and then find the profit that purpose generates. If profit precedes purpose—well, Dan Pink says it best in this video:
When the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen. Bad things ethically sometimes, but also bad things like not good stuff—like crappy products—like lame services—like uninspiring places to work. When the profit motive is paramount … people don’t do great things.
To avoid these problems, some businesses have tried to manufacture purpose. Look at the commercials Dodge and Jeep aired during the Superbowl: two-minute spots that make it appear the company cares about something more than us buying their cars. Chrysler has made a habit of this approach, last year they had that Clint Eastwood ad, because they understand that purpose attracts the trust and loyalty of customers. For other companies, purpose is more than a marketing strategy. JetBlue (“bringing humanity back to air travel“), Amazon (“earth’s most customer centric company“) and Skype (“the fabric of real-time communication on the web“) all have clear goals they were founded to accomplish. Their creators discovered how they can naturally “harness the profit motive” when their first aim is serving the public interest. While many of us don’t establish business-wide vision, we still have a key role to play. In his recent book, Tim Keller offers an important reminder: “Our individual professional ethics have a cumulative effect.” Therefore, if we want to cultivate businesses worthy of trust, the process begins with us. A good first step would be following Elise Amyx’s advice, recognizing the eternal significance of our everyday work. The leaders at Davos can’t help us with this change. Workers, entrepreneurs and government officials must decide for themselves whether purpose precedes profit. Only then will we begin trusting our leaders again.