1. Lessons In Leadership

Escape Velocity – Part 1

CEOs must resist polarization.

It’s not your imagination. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer confirmed what many of us feared — the world is gripped by distrust and divisiveness. Specifically, the Edelman report notes that 65 percent of respondents characterize the lack of civility and mutual respect as “the worst I’ve ever seen.” And only 20 percent said they’d be willing to work with a person who “strongly disagreed with my POV.”

Clearly, this is not the kind of atmosphere in which governments — or conscientious business governance — can thrive. Big problems demand cooperation between diverse thinkers intent on securing a sustainable solution. When polarized groups wear their differences like a badge of honor, the common good is sacrificed and divisiveness accelerates.

It’s as if polarizing forces have gained their own gravitational pull. Fortunately, the Edelman report suggests that we can achieve escape velocity if business leaders take the initiative. As we saw last year, most people distrust both the government and media but increasingly rely on business as a trusted resource for information and direction. The 2023 report confirms that people place trust in CEOs and specifically trust “my CEO” higher than CEOs in general (64 percent vs. 48 percent). I see these findings as a call to action for business leaders — an opportunity to reverse the descent into cynicism, mistrust, and civic collapse.

We have good reason to be troubled by the complex factors driving polarization. And even though many corporations have taken a progressive approach to ESG issues, there is reluctance to tackle key polarizing forces within our own companies or in our outward-facing messaging. It’s not that we are afraid to take a stand, but that we don’t want to overstep our prime responsibility. As CEO’s, we represent the full spectrum of our workforce; it would be irresponsible to take sides on issues that could trigger further polarization.

So why should business leaders rush in where angels fear to tread? Because somebody has to stop the freefall into chaos. And the Edelman Trust Barometer presents a clear mandate for business leaders to take the lead.

We are called to promote collaboration and restore economic optimism regarding the future. We can do this, each within our own organization, by focusing the collective energy of our stakeholders on shared concerns and common purpose. We can activate the people we lead in a positive direction. I’m not talking about speechifying or putting up motivational posters around the workplace. I’m talking about intentionally creating space for meaningful, authentic connection.

The creation of that space is the subject of my next post.

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