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How To Lead In Turbulent Times

Across industries, impactful leaders can’t be afraid to take a stand both in and out of the boardroom.

How To Lead In Turbulent Times
Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya onstage at last year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival. Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company

A few weeks ago, I got a LinkedIn message from Kat Lisciani, host of the Millennial Innovators podcast. She was asking how to pronounce my last name, wanting to cite an editor’s letter of mine in an episode. I’ve just listened to the episode, which begins with an endorsement of my assertion that “business is the driving force for progress in our culture.” It’s quite flattering. Yet by the end, Lisciani is challenging me. Corporations have a role to play, she contends, but in the current environment, “all hope for the future rests on . . . the individual, the citizen.”

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I couldn’t agree more. But I don’t think these positions are actually at odds. Because while corporations are limited by their culture, structure, and rules, they are ultimately composed of individuals. And how those individuals act determines the character and impact of the company.

No one better embodies this potential than our cover subject, Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani. He is the most unexpected of leaders, a Kurdish immigrant who arrived in America two decades ago with little money, limited English skills, and a sense that capitalism and CEOs were rapacious and selfish. Since then, he has used the tools of capitalism to build an industry-redefining corporation, becoming a billionaire CEO in the process. He is now a devoted believer in the power of the marketplace, but he also feels a deep responsibility for his business to stand for something more than simply making money—including more equitable policies for employees and an embrace of immigrants, refugees, and others whose options are limited. As features editor Rob Brunner explains in his insightful and affecting profile, Ulukaya represents a new model of business leadership for the 21st century.

Many corporations and leaders are all too interested in gaming the system to get ahead, in posing and posturing for economic benefit alone—a practice that has become increasingly perilous. In a special report, senior writer Austin Carr unpacks how businesses from Google to Uber have been buffeted by controversy, demonstrations, and boycotts in the first few months of the new administration. What Carr’s survival guide illuminates is how much easier it is to navigate times of change when an enterprise and its leadership authentically stand for something bigger than themselves.

The same podcast episode that mentions my quote coincidentally features two staffers at Charity: Water, an organization that is highlighted as one of our 2017 World Changing Ideas honorees. Founder Scott Harrison personifies how an individual’s conviction can spread to an organization. Harrison began his career as a music promoter and by his own admission led a dissolute, shallow life. After hitting rock bottom, he headed to Africa to help doctors provide medical care in Liberia. His old friends in New York City thought it was just a phase and that he’d be back at the clubs with them, roaring into the night. Instead, he launched a radically new kind of nonprofit that has helped to reduce the number of people with no access to clean water by more than 100 million in five years.

Not everyone will give up everything to devote their life to a cause, nor is every corporation as overtly mission-fed as Ulukaya’s. But we can all do better, aspire to do more. As Lisciani declares in her podcast, “So many times we fall into the trap of thinking, I don’t have enough to do XYZ. I don’t have enough people, I don’t have enough funding, I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough resources. But those are just the excuses we tell ourselves, to avoid inconveniencing our comfort, our pockets, or our schedules, to go out of our way to make the world a better place for someone else.” If business is going to continue to be a driving force for progress, it’s only because each of us as individuals makes the effort—and sometimes the sacrifice—to get it there.

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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