Lessons on leading with purpose in a capitalist society

July 8, 2021


new essay, which was coauthored by two students and a professor at the Ross School of Business, offers important suggestions for leaders seeking a higher purpose in a profit-first world.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Michigan Ross/Erb Institute students Celia Bravard, MBA/MS ’23, and John Pontillo, MBA/MS ’23, with Professor Andy Hoffman, explore the conflict between pursuit of shareholder value and of the greater good.

The authors write, “The big question for us, then, is: How can we succeed in a system that primarily rewards profit, with much less attention paid to social or environmental issues? How can we create real change while working in a corporate world that’s mostly stuck in outdated business models?”

The essay finds some answers in the wisdom of Paul Polman, former CEO at Unilever who developed the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. Polman is now co-founder and chair of IMAGINE, a nonprofit focused on sustainability.

Through a series of three interviews with Polman, the authors challenge their peers to take control of their business education, augmenting it when it falls short of their needs and goals. They derive three key lessons:

  • Take the time to discern your purpose and values.
  • Develop your sphere of influence.
  • When the opportunity arises, change the system.

The HBR essay explains how leaders can apply each lesson in their daily work.

In the end, the authors are prompted by a question from Polman: “What’s the game you’re playing here? For whom are you playing it?” They then ask the reader, “Do you choose to be a hero for the short-term, justifying your decisions to increase profits in the next quarter? Or do you choose to play the long game for the whole of humanity, seeking authentic, moral leadership that looks far beyond shareholder profits?”

Hoffman is a faculty associate at the Center for Positive Organizations and Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.


This article was originally published by Michigan Ross