It was a very different world in 2004, when Pete Peterson (former Secretary of Commerce, former chairman of Blackstone Group, and noted philanthropist) wrote a penetrating column in the Washington Post entitled, “Where Are the Business Patriots? CEOs Need to Be Statesmen Again.”
The gist of Peterson’s op-ed was—and continues to be—as compelling as it was straight-forward: Business leaders need to engage more actively with their political counterparts to shape the future environment. The reality, he lamented, was that the current generation of corporate titans are no longer nearly as engaged as their predecessors were when it comes to pushing a broader agenda.
To illuminate the point, Peterson compared the circumstances in 2004 with the immediate post-World War II period, when business leaders such as Paul Hoffman of Studebaker, Bill Benton of Benton & Bowles, and Marion Folsom of Eastman Kodak created a bipartisan group called the “Committee for Economic Development.” In so doing, Peterson asserts, they changed the history of corporate leadership. How? By championing several ambitious initiatives such as the Employment Act of 1946, the president's Council of Economic Advisors, the Bretton Woods institutions, and—above all—the Marshall Plan.
Fast-forward to 2014. The nature and essence of power have changed considerably. According to Moisés Naím, author of the provocative and insightful book The End of Power and one of the featured speakers at our CEO Retreat in Cartagena, Colombia, organizations across the board are suffering from decay when it comes to their capacity to adapt and adjust to an increasingly disruptive environment. This decay is equal opportunity. It is occurring across all geographies and forms of organizations.
Now, rewind to Peterson’s thesis about corporate patriots. If the need for greater and more strategic corporate intervention was pronounced in 2004—the world before the Great Recession, the iPhone, Big Bang Theory, and One Direction (how could we have coped?)—the circumstances today are even more urgent. We need hyper-business leaders who are strategic, innovative, and ready to proactively shape the environments in which they operate.
Let me emphasize that this requirement transcends the specific need for a hyper-business profile in the United States, as critical as it is. To differing degrees, it applies to all countries, economies, and systems. In the face of the kind of institutional decay of power that Naím posits, as universal as he believes it to be, private sectors across diverse commercial environments need to ramp up their efforts to shape their respective future environments.
If they decide not to try, or if they fail, the future will be shaped for them.