How do you do and be good in a polarized world?

by | Aug 8, 2021 | Blog | 2 comments

What a tumultuous 24 months! We’re all having to navigate new ground that continues to shift under our feet. There are more questions than answers, yet it’s important to keep asking questions and continue talking. The issues tend to be complex, emotional, and polarizing and require new ways to lead and work.

This August marks the second anniversary of the Business Roundtable’s announcement that it was redefining the purpose of a corporation. The announcement in itself didn’t set off a chain of events. However, the change has influenced events over the past two years and will continue to make an impact.

The 2019 announcement, signed by 181 business leaders, committed to “promote an economy that serves all Americans.” The primary responsibility of companies stopped being to maximize  profits for shareholders. Now, companies are expected to provide value to their full range of “stakeholders.” This includes employees, customers, and communities—as well as shareholders.

Just about six months after this announcement, Americans started needing to be served in new ways. Since March 2020, we’ve been experiencing a domineering health pandemic, a bumpy economy that’s hurt some and helped others, extreme weather incidences related to accelerated climate changes, a nationwide reckoning for racial justice, and a presidential election with repercussions that are destabilizing democracy.

With all of this tumult and uncertainty, it’s not surprising that the public now considers business to be the most trusted institution. Plus, it’s the only one that’s viewed as both competent and ethical, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. And with this widespread mistrust of most institutions except business, people are making more demands of CEOs.

The CEO job description has expanded to cover a broader range of responsibilities since the job now answers to all of these stakeholders, due to the Business Roundtable decision. And in a highly polarized society, executives are finding themselves in a delicate balancing act.

Consider these highly charged issues, just from the past year:

  • Covid Vaccines – mandate, encourage, or ?
  • Newly proposed voting laws – support, oppose, or ?
  • Racial equity – pledge to support, start to make systemic changes, or ?

And then there are the decisions related to whether employees who’ve been working at home return to the worksite full-time, a few days a week or stay remote once the pandemic gets under control. These decisions have a ripple effect. Small businesses and the communities around company headquarters and other offices are affected, not just employees and their families.

With all of these dilemmas swirling around, who knows how many CEOs are secretly pining for the “good old days” when they had just one boss – the owners of the business – and one main job, maximizing profit. Back then, having one boss and one job certainly simplified other aspects of leadership. For example, strategic direction, priorities, values, decisions and ethics had a much narrower focus than they do today.

Now many companies and their boards are adopting—and compensating leaders on—ESG (environmental, social, and governance) metrics. These performance metrics encourage CEOs and their teams to broaden their perspective and consider multiple stakeholders when analyzing issues and deciding what to do. Yes, CEOs, particularly those who make their goals, are earning big bucks. But these are hard jobs, especially when you make a misstep or are accused of being complicit with “the other side” if you stay silent or try to be neutral.

The big question for CEOs and their leadership team has become: How do you do and be good in a polarized world?

That’s what we ask in our Humanity Labs at Mercedes Martin & Co. And we acknowledge there are no easy or quick answers. Instead, we provide leaders and teams with a safe and brave space to be seen, heard and connected to explore these dilemmas and wicked problems and consider how interconnected they are with each other and the business. Participants can talk and experiment without the fear of saying the wrong thing or worse, being scorned on social media.

In the labs, we co-create experiences for leaders and their teams to increase their understanding of their own personal beliefs, assumptions, and biases and consider how they’ve been culturally conditioned. By talking about these topics and how they relate to each other and to the business, leaders and their teams can connect all the dots and further develop their thinking.

By considering change on three levels – personal, interpersonal and organizational – lab participants also start to align their personal, team and company purpose, mission and values. This alignment guides them in shaping their preferred future as a measurable, inclusive, actionable and equitable touchpoint.

With the public trusting businesses more than other institutions, now is the ideal time for CEOs and their teams first to connect all the dots and then co-create their preferred future. This future needs to be measurable, inclusive, and equitable to ensure all stakeholders can focus on a common purpose to achieve what we call sustainable equity™.  

If you want to know more about Humanity Labs, email Mercedes or me.


  1. Gary Campbell

    Great read and spot on the mark. My position as CEO has never been more challenging yet it does offer quite the opportunity to celebrate getting it right. It is a moving target and what I drive in my own organization is following the North Star of our core values and making sure personal values are aligned as well. Never thought the role of CEO could get tougher but it has and it does not surprise me that not only are execs longing for the good ole days of one boss, they are seriously exploring exiting all together for world in which they are their own boss.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Gary! I value your feedback. And yes, explicit core values that are aligned with personal values are the best North Star for navigating choppy waters these days. Values are today’s uber-strategy. I’m also glad that you’re still seeing and experiencing the upside of leading. We need leaders like you!

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