How to Breed Leaders for the ‘Positive Business’ Era

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BY  ALISON DAVIS-BLAKE
Dean, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan

The original article can be found in Inc. at

The world of work is changing — again.

While business has always been fluid, in the past few hundred years there have been fundamental changes in the nature of work. Prior to the industrial revolution, work was very local and very small in scale. For most people — journeymen and apprentices, blacksmiths, farmers, shop keepers and the like — work was most often the extended family business or trade. The concept of a career was a smaller part of life in relation to the other institutions, such as church, community and family.

This all changed with the industrial revolution, when the first very large-scale factories combined with long range transportation systems, created enterprises with massive wealth and power.

Fast forward to today. Corporations shape the quality of life for individuals and communities like no other institution. Leaders of major companies like Apple or Amazon have the potential to affect the lives of millions of people in an instant. In many cases, CEOs’ decisions have the ability to affect our world more than any decision made by legislators. The concept of work has evolved into career, and the work organization is one of the most important factors in an individual’s life. A place where many spend more time and energy than they do with their own families.

Because of the central role of work in the lives of people today, those leading these enterprises have a sacred trust to carefully consider and appropriately manage the impact of those enterprises on individuals, families, communities and nations. In short, corporate leaders need to be able to create value — economic value for shareholders, personal value for their employees, and value for the communities and nations in which they operate. This concept of creating a full spectrum of value is what I refer to as positive business and in my belief, is the future of both the business world and business education.

The importance of positive business is supported by research. According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report, of the nearly 100 million people in the U.S. who hold full-time jobs, only 30 million are engaged and inspired at work. Roughly 20 million employees are actively disengaged, while the remaining 50 million are not engaged. By creating a positive environment at work, employees will be able to bring their best selves each day and can be creative and productive throughout the day and when they return to their families and communities in the evening.

Positive business is also key to effectively take on — and solve — the most difficult challenges that society faces. Hunger, disease, environmental issues and other global problems absolutely require the active participation of the corporate world. Leaders who have the business acumen and orientation to tackle these issues will be highly sought after in coming years.

While positive business includes sustainable practices and corporate social responsibility, it goes beyond those virtues. Positive business energizes people and firms. It maximizes potential and enables individuals to achieve their highest aspirations. In essence, happier workers generate more creative and productive workplaces and stronger communities — and research has shown that time and again.

The responsibility to create these positive environments does not rest solely with business owners — it’s also up to educational institutions to teach future leaders how to fulfill the responsibilities inherent in leading today’s corporations. The pressure is on for the education sector to address the dated management strategies that some businesses are using. It is time to embrace the era of positive business and support the next generation of leaders, many of whom are ready and willing to make a positive difference.

The university experience is a transformational experience. We are here to change lives. Therefore, we, as educators of those leaders, have a responsibility to produce leaders who will understand the vast power of business and be prepared to use it in a responsible way. It is our charge to provide them an experience that is focused on helping them understand and fully realize the positive impact that they can have on individual employees, their families and on communities and nations.

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