By Latha Poonamallee 6 minute Read

After the many ethical and moral violations and excesses that defined the last 50-or-so years, the private sector is beginning to turn a corner in a post-pandemic world. In 2021, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, private business is the most trusted institution globally and the only institution seen as both ethical and competent. An overwhelming 86% of the survey respondents expect the CEOs to lead on social issues and 68% have said that CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems.

This escalation of public trust gives a once-in-a-generation opportunity for 21st-century leaders to rethink their legacy and wield their immense power in the service of social justice, inclusion, and collective well-being.

Both the recent PWC Global CEO Survey and the Fortune/Deloitte CEO Survey list building public trust and focus on people as key CEO concerns in addition to issues such as growth strategies, technology investments, and cybersecurity. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues are perceived to pose the second-highest risks that companies must manage next only to technology adoption. Further, with Gen Z emerging as the largest and most diverse cohort in the world, commitment to issues such as DEI, sustainability, climate change becomes important to attract and retain Gen Z workers and customers.

It is also the right thing to do. Almost 90% of the jobs in developing countries are in the private sector. And some companies earn more profit than whole countries. Simply put, the private sector wields enormous power all over the world. Many CEOs are acutely aware of the moral and market imperative of this shift. Some have responded with genuine care and commitment. For example, Bracken Darrell, CEO of Logitech issued a call to fellow CEOs to step up and go all in.

But many organizations and leaders are scrambling to respond or responding in ways that have been criticized for their hypocrisy. Further, many leaders relegate or delegate issues of core values and culture change towards building a better world to HR, CSR, and the new trend of hiring a catch-all chief diversity officer, a role that is mostly occupied by black women. DEI has become the new CSR—a new mantra, a new soup of letters for the new day. This can be changed.

Leadership is about stepping up, showing up, and trying to do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. Now is a great window of opportunity for leaders at all levels to exercise their immense power for good and be champions of justice.

Reclaim your own humanity

We cannot achieve justice without centering humanity and collective well-being in our organizations. We cannot forget that people come together as collectives or organizations to pool resources, solve collective problems, and advance each other’s well-being.

A leader is also a human being with dreams, fears, and aspirations, and the human need for connections, validation, and legacy. Do not let the system commodify you and truncate your capacity to be whole and human. When emotional and social intelligence is related to successful leadership at mid-levels, we have constructed a system that glorifies and elevates pathological and narcissistic leaders to the top. I know many executives across the world who are decent human beings and want to be a force for good. The challenge is how to own our greatness while being brave enough to face our ignorant and ignoble impulses too and how to be accountable and be vigilant about our own blind spots.

Build space for being human in your life and work. Pay attention to your own emotional cues. Ask if it feels okay to treat yourself as a cog in the wheel as against a whole human being. You may be a highly paid cog in the wheel but if the way the role gets defined means you cannot honor your own humanity, then you are as held by wages as the lowest level employee in your organization. When you make decisions that make you less humanistic, you are reducing your own and others’ humanity.

Build a space for active and critical reflection

If you want your legacy to be justice, you must lead by example and be the change in how you do your job, how you lead, and how you interact with the world. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time either. You will make mistakes and be occasionally blind to your own foibles, biases, and ways in which you may be reinforcing the status quo and existing inequalities.

Make room for structured reflection to develop clarity in your thinking about your own actions, beliefs, values, and mindsets. Ask yourself what you did to advance collective well-being, justice, equity, and inclusion. You may be surprised at how infrequently we think about these issues and their ramifications in our everyday operations and processes.

Grant others their humanity

The people you manage, and lead are human, just like you. We cannot achieve justice in organizations without centering the humanity of all its members. How you define yourself in relation to other people, other living beings, the physical environment, and the universe at large influences how you lead. Deliberately and intentionally cultivate a more expansive sense of identity that helps you cultivate more interdependence-centered mental models. That is the way to transcend ego and the polarized nature of our world and see yourself and your role in a larger context. For example, if you want all your team members to feel included, notice the silent attendees in a meeting and invite them to participate. Like you, they will not always be correct. Give people some grace while holding them accountable.

Examine your use of power

Do not be afraid to use your power to shape the purpose and change the culture of your organization to advance social and environmental justice aims. CEOs usually derive their power from the board or some such governance structure but are usually deployed to make more profits and increase shareholder wealth at the cost of everything else.

If you are a C-Suite executive or leader, you are among the most rarefied in the world. If you are a one-percenter among the one-percenters, you have your own personal power. Don’t hide from it. Don’t squander it. Embrace it. Use it for good. Learn from individuals who have far less than you have and have made the most to be of service to the world. If you have been in a position of power for much of your life like most senior executives, most times, your people do not tell you the truth. In your daily journaling or reflection process, conduct a power audit about how you use your power.

Develop definitional frameworks

Develop a clear understanding and definitional framework for social justice, equity, and inclusion. Begin by asking:

  • What do you mean by justice, equity, and inclusion?
  • How does that show up in your organizational structures, policies, and processes?
  • Have you embedded these goals in organizational processes and performance management systems?
  • How would you develop a culture of collaboration even amid difficult conversations about uncomfortable topics that silence one group or the other?

The group whose turn it is to stay silent may be a function of the zeitgeist, but a leader must be attentive to these issues. The process of change towards more just and inclusive organizations must also be just and inclusive. Connect individual goals, action, and access to power to structural and systemic change. For change to be sustainable, both individual and systemic dynamics must shift.

Latha Poonamallee, PhD, is an associate professor, chair of the Faculty of Management, and university fellow at The New School. She is also the author of Expansive Leadership: Cultivating Mindfulness to Lead Self and Others in a Changing World.