Nearly half a century ago, in 1971, corporate leaders came together at the first World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to discuss a revolutionary concept. Organized by Professor Klaus Schwab, the gathering was predicated on the idea that businesses have an obligation not simply to shareholders, but to all stakeholders – and that sustainable success cannot be achieved without delivering not only for investors, clients, and customers, but for employees and society as a whole. It was a groundbreaking notion codified just two years later in the Davos Manifesto, which affirmed that the economy should benefit everyone, and provided a set of guiding principles for companies to put that idea into practice.
The world has changed dramatically since that time. Today, we face existential threats to our planet and our survival. Climate change is progressing at an alarming rate. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, powered by digital innovation, has made data and information both a powerful tool and a dangerous weapon. In August, Dan Glaser, CEO of Marsh & McLennan Companies, was quoted in Fortune describing the biggest risks faced by business leaders as cybersecurity, climate, and culture – significantly different concerns than CEOs faced 50 years ago. In a world that is more interconnected and interdependent than ever before, the actions of businesses and business leaders can have a profound effect in countries and communities around the globe.
Meanwhile, even as we face extraordinary challenges, we are living at a time of real distrust – not only of elites and corporate managers, but of our way of life. More than half of young people aged 18-29 say that they are opposed to capitalism, and with some justification: according to the World Bank, inequality within nations is higher today than 25 years ago, meaning that individuals today are likely to live in economies with greater inequality than they faced a quarter century ago. Profound disparities and inaction on looming challenges has made people skeptical not only of people with power, but of power itself, even when that power is used to the benefit of all.
There is no doubt that the age of indifference has come to an end. But what must come next is not cynicism, but a return to the principles of that early meeting in Davos, and a commitment to its more inclusive view of success.
Already, we’ve seen business leaders find ways to recognize our new normal and to encourage transformational change. In August, Business Roundtable made headlines with its Principles of Corporate Governance document, which, for the first time, redefined the purpose of a corporation to promote “an economy that serves all Americans.” In November, JUST Capital released its annual rankings of America’s Most JUST Companies that prioritize fair pay, equal treatment, strong communities, and a healthy planet in order to inspire other leaders and support more inclusive metrics for success. These developments, and their impact on business culture, speak to the opportunity that industry leaders have to embrace their CEO statesman role and come together to work on issues of vital importance to our people and our planet.
That is the promise of the World Economic Forum, and the value of its founding principles. It’s also why those who reflexively dismiss these assemblies for dialog and action as celebrations of wealth are missing an extraordinary opportunity for global growth and progress. At its core, the World Economic Forum is not about elevating elites – it’s about encouraging those with agency and influence to use their resources to serve humanity.
I have been fortunate in my career to work with a number of remarkable business leaders who are committed to this goal and who feel the urgency to act. I have been inspired by their dedication to ensure their own enterprise fights against corruption; stands up for diversity; pays its fair share in taxes; and serves as a thoughtful and trustworthy steward of community resources, from data to the environment. And I have viewed firsthand the enormous potential of gatherings like Davos to turn noble efforts and honorable ideas into concrete collective achievements.
The changes we’ve seen make opportunities like Davos more important, not less. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the World Economic Forum, it’s time for a call to action: not against a gathering of leaders, but in favor of the kinds of conversations that join together individuals and organizations with the means to create change and the determination to make an impact.
The challenge for all of us is not to let our frustration short-circuit opportunity or to throw up our hands and despair of progress, but to insist on it; to work for it; and to demand it from our business leaders and CEO statesmen.
And we must recommit ourselves to a more just, expansive, and inclusive future.
As leaders gather in Davos later this month in January, that should be our goal.