“The most pressing question in America today is, Can American business leadership rise to its opportunities and responsibilities?”
The question was posed in 1933, but rings all-too-true for today’s business leadership not only in America but in the world. In 1933, then-dean of Harvard Business School Wallace Donham gave this challenge at HBS’ 25th anniversary gathering during the very depths of the Great Depression. In 2008, current President of Harvard University Drew Gilpin Faust brought this history back to life by aptly quoting these words at HBS’ 100th Anniversary Global Summit. How apt? The Summit was held in mid-October of 2008, a week after the largest drop in the Dow’s 112-year history.
The alumni speakers at the 2008 event included, among others, included Meg Whitman (eBay), Anand Mahindra (Mahindra & Mahindra), John Doerr (Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers), James Wolfensohn (former president of the World Bank), Jamie Dimon (JPMorgan Chase), Oriet Gadish (Bain & Co.), Rick Wagoner (GM) and Jeff Immelt (GE). Each of these powerful and savvy insiders took on Donham’s challenge as they explored the three key topics of the 2008 conference:
- Closing the leadership gap in both business and government. As Faust said: we need to create “leaders who make a difference not just in the world but for the world.” The other speakers quickly identified the specifics of the new leadership: addressing both the environment and energy independence, and finding new and productive ways for business and government to collaborate around opportunities to create a better US and world
- Managing and leading within the promise and dangers of globalization. How do we make the interconnectedness of the world raise the living standards for all instead for just some? How do we avoid disastrous domino effects like the one we are currently experiencing? HBS Professor Niall Ferguson argued that globalization is inherently unstable because its very strength – driving inefficiencies out of the entire value chain – also creates vulnerability as the robustness that comes with a certain amount of fat in the system is gone. Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration and newly named head of the Obama’s National Economic Council, spoke on behalf of financial regulation that would focus on the stability of the larger financial systems, not just individual institutions.
- Finding new ways to define market capitalism. Guest speaker Bill Gates talked about his passion for what he calls “creative capitalism,” using a small portion of the innovative power of business to help solve the kinds of problems that capitalism does not address: conquering malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDs in developing countries.
Inspiring stuff from some of the most plugged in people in the business world. Are they really serious? How will these changes happen? In large part, through greater transparency in the conduct of both business and government, and through engaging more people in the process of finding the solutions to complex and far-reaching problems. Said Meg Whitman: “I think the American people are dying to be asked to help solve some of these problems. People need to be enfranchised in the solution.” Gates advocates that American businesses allow their most creative and innovative people to spend 5 percent of their time working to solve social problems.
In truth, more questions were asked than answered, and the proof of sincerity will be in action, not simply heartfelt rhetoric at an alumni gathering. But I can’t help but feel that there is a change in the zeitgeist, particularly with the change in the US administration, that will encourage and embolden both business and government to put some muscle behind the words and help to re-define the prosperity we all seek to include global and environmental health as well as wealth.
Let us hope that in 2009 that we will truly follow through on our highest knowledge and best intentions.As we develop our strategies, devise our plans, deal with the people we have with us today, and imagine the strengths and capabilities of the workforce of the future, let us keep in mind the fuller picture and larger goals.
Time will tell.