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What Questions Does The Most Important Crisis Of Our Lifetime Raise For Us As Business Leaders?

What Questions Does The Most Important Crisis Of Our Lifetime Raise For Us As Business Leaders?

The last year and a half of living through the global pandemic has allowed us all to challenge some of our most comfortable and unquestioned norms: Did we really need to commute for hours in order to work from a desk every day? Did we need to drive to the grocery store, find parking and walk the aisles, just to get milk? We changed some habits overnight and turned some niche ideas into new norms. I want to invite us today, while we’re still in the midst of the storm, before this moment passes us by, to question some more core fundamental assumptions that define our businesses and society.

The Covid-19 crisis taught us that whether you were among the top 1% or below the poverty line, you were not immune to the virus. The virus is unbiased and unprejudiced — it knows no difference between a president and a pauper — and it will attack both with equal vehemence. Yet because of the way we have built our world, the carnage from the virus is anything but fair and equal.

According to a recent analysis by Oxfam International, as a result of the pandemic, billions of people will now be living in poverty for at least a decade. Meanwhile, the world’s billionaires added another half a trillion dollars to their wealth. The world’s 10 richest men alone have increased their wealth by over $500 billion dollars during the pandemic — more than enough to pay for a Covid-19 vaccine for everyone in the world. Additionally, according to a recent study by APM Research Lab, the age-adjusted Covid-19 mortality rate for Pacific Islanders, Latinos, Indigenous and Black Americans is double or more than that of white Americans. Finally, according to a Washington Post article from last fall, the pandemic triggered the most unequal recession in modern history. “The sectors most deeply affected by Covid disproportionately employ women, minorities, and lower-income workers,” said Ben Bernanke, former chair of the Federal Reserve.

If we dig deep into the history and origin of societal inequities, what glares back at us, in the simplest terms, is the quest for money and power. It was the discovery of gold in the Great Sioux Reservation that made the U.S. government renege on the agreements to reserve those lands for the exclusive use of native communities. It was the promises of growing riches through the cotton, tobacco, and indigo industries — growth rates even today’s fasted growing tech startups would be envious of — that formalized the industrialization of slavery. And it was when we began to realize how powerful and lucrative computer programming can be, that we swiftly and systematically phased out women from the industry, replacing them with men. Money and power have been controlled by the few, for the few, at the expense of billions for centuries.

The way I see it, as business leaders, we experience a direct conflict between economic growth and societal well-being and sustainability, a conflict we must be willing to address. We find ourselves stuck choosing between industrial growth and healing the environment, maximizing profits and increasing wages, securing IP and sharing life-saving discoveries, fixing racial and gender equity problems and hiring who we know, who we need and who we can get today. No matter the size of your company, the stage or the industry, without growth — specifically the growth of sales, growth of shareholder returns — there is no there, there.

So what can we do? Impact investing, double bottom-line, managing for the long run and B-Corps are all excellent steps towards countering these gross fundamental problems, but what we must talk about today are our gross fundamental problems. The few shining examples in various industries give us false comfort and undeserved permission to abdicate ourselves of the more difficult and uncomfortable conversation around the fact that the core system we have created is causing terrible consequences for our world.

In the spirit of never letting a good (more appropriately, a devastating) crisis go to waste, as Winston Churchill would tell us, can we open up these more difficult and uncomfortable conversations about taking a hard look at our system? A look at the incentives we create, what we celebrate, what we penalize, what we call success and failure, what we truly value and what we don’t. The intended and unintended consequences. Because, as Albert Einstein said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved with the same level of thinking we were using when we created them.”

Can we, business leaders living through the most important crisis of our lifetimes, start by asking ourselves the difficult questions? Because that’s where progress begins and ends.

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