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The Key To Creating Socially Conscious Businesses

Why the role of a leader is different now than in years past.

The Key To Creating Socially Conscious Businesses
[Photo: Flickr user Matthias Ripp]

On a broad scale, how do we create altruistic organizations that can really transform society and transform economic systems? This is the field I’ve been studying since I left the corporate world eight years ago, and I’m convinced that the key to this is compassionate, authentic leadership. We need a new generation of leaders to step forward and provide this new kind of leadership.

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My basic premise is that compassionate, authentic leadership is essential. It’s not just that it’s good to have—it’s necessary for a healthy society. I’m disappointed in my generation of leaders; I believed that they failed in their responsibility. As a result of the failures of leadership in the last decade, there’s been a loss of confidence in our leaders, and a loss of trust. Each of us who takes a leadership role has a responsibility to the people we serve. If we put ourselves ahead of the public, we have failed in our responsibilities and we can cause great harm.

At my former company Medtronic, which makes medical products, our mission and our meaning was to restore people to full life and health. The way we measured ourselves was not by earnings per share but by how many people we helped. My greatest source of pride is that in the time I was there, we went from 300,000 people per year to 10 million people per year who were being restored to fuller, more active lives through our work. We always tried to convey this meaning to the people in the company, because that’s what inspired them, not the stock price, not the earnings.

The Changing Role of Leaders

The role of the leader in this century is different than in centuries past. It’s to bring people together around this sense of meaning, purpose, and values. It is a very difficult task, particularly in organizations that span the globe, to gain that kind of alignment where people believe in the purpose of the organization and practice its values.

The second role of the leader is not to exert power over other people. Many scholars have written about leadership as power. This idea of power suggests a zero-sum game: if I give you power, I have less. But I reject this idea. I think leadership is about empowering people to lead. If we can empower other people to step up and lead, then we have much stronger organizations, and we can all contribute to the best of our abilities.

Let me give you an example of a woman whom I met at Medtronic many years ago. She was making heart valves. If a human heart valve failed, they could actually take a valve from the pig and use it to replace the failed human heart valve. This woman was the top worker in the plant. When I asked her about her work, she looked at me with passion in her eyes and said, “My job is to make heart valves the save people’s lives. I make one thousand heart valves a year. If one valve is defective, someone will die, and I could never live with the idea that I caused the death of another person.” But she also said, “You know, when I go home at night, what I’m thinking about is that there are five thousand people in the world today who are alive and healthy because of the products I made.”

This woman is an empowered leader. She doesn’t have a formal leadership role, and she isn’t a supervisor, but everyone looks to her for inspiration. This is the kind of empowered leadership we need to spread more broadly.

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Excerpted from Caring Economics: Conversations on Altruism and Compassion, Between Scientists, Economists, and the Dalai Lama[i] edited by Tania Singer and Matthieu Ricard, copyright © 2015 by Tania Singer and Matthieu Ricard. Published in April 2015 by Picador USA. All rights reserved.

William George is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, where he teaches leadership development and ethics. He is the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic. Under his leadership, the company’s market capitalization grew from $1.1 billion to $60 billion, averaging a 35% increase each year.