As the year that was 2020 came to an end I, like many, took pause to reflect (and mutter a silent WTF under my breath). And yet, one question keeps circling in my mind: surely this a time where business can be noble again?
Why noble? The concept of being noble in its truest sense (not the bizarre concept that it’s a birthright of ‘good’ breeding) is to behave in an honest and brave way — to be a bold leader. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I could do with a bit more noble and a bit less Trump in my life in 2021.
So, what has led to this musing? Well, recently I have been researching companies that have been born of a great purpose and the secrets behind their success, and I’ve uncovered some wonderful historical examples.
A favourite was John Cadbury who believed chocolate could be a force for good, pitching his yummy chocolate drinks as a more wholesome alternative to alcohol, after seeing the negative effect alcohol was having on his local community. More than this, he created a ‘factory in a garden’ enabling industrial workers to thrive away from city pollution. Intrinsic to his success was a commitment to put people and communities at the heart of how he operated.
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John Cadbury was not alone. Walt Disney showed us the value of heart and creativity in business, and Henry Ford democratised the automobile, ensuring it could be priced so low that “no man would be unable to own one”.
But, despite these heart-warming examples, the recent death of former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh — who I believe shared their sense of nobility in business — prompted me to question if business is really stepping up to the plate.
Let’s for a moment reflect on our year of horror where we reeled as Rio Tinto adopted a ‘blow now, apologise later’ policy to some of our most precious earth; notorious politicians lined their pockets with ‘fundraising’ dollars from citizens teetering on the poverty line; and a chorus of brands sang (by this I mean poetic copywriting, to emotional soundtracks against moving ‘real life’ social media footage) repeating in a tone–deaf droll that ‘we are in it together’ for everything from COVID-19, #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter. From the criminal to the insincere, there seemed a complete void in nobility.
Now that I have purged my 2020 demons, let’s lighten the mood a bit and look towards the light — the light that 2021 could be for all of us.
I’m not talking about the giddy optimism of vaccine–fuelled freedom and bubbling with buoyancy financial markets.
I’m talking about a wholesale change in how we work, consume, operate and live. One that feels like we have turned the tide and learnt some lessons about what matters. Where we genuinely value all life and ways of life, the planet we live on, and a world where all businesses rediscover the profound impact they can have on society.
Or to put it more simply, a world where we just try to be a bit more noble.