Corporate leadership and the power of a good story

It has not, on the whole, been a good month for global political leadership. Commentators and NGOs were sharpening their knives even before the worlds’ heads of government – or rather, their deputies’ deputies – convened at Rio for an underwhelming Earth Summit. Meanwhile, the still-unresolved Euro crisis illustrates that even when the crisis at hand is more immediate, prevarication and delay can still seem more appealing than bold and potentially controversial measures to politicians faced with fearful electorates. The irony is that in shrinking from offering leadership, they start to look irrelevant to the people they represent. A dangerous development.

But if we no longer expect politicians to lead, what about business? The bad news is that, as we saw in last months' column, GlobeScan’s global polling shows that the corporate world fares little better, with many consumers, particularly in the world’s industrialised economies — disinclined to trust it. And yet business is seen as having a pivotal role to play in solving the world’s problems. It joins an unholy trinity of three institutions — the media, government and companies — whose potential impact in solving global problems is thought to be significant, but who lack public confidence.

Of course, this is not the whole picture. Corporate leadership exists. Writing in May’s Proof Points, my colleague Eric Whan looked at the companies that sustainability experts view as leading the charge towards a more sustainable world with, for different reasons, firms such as Unilever, Interface and Walmart all faring well.

Each year, we ask a similar question of citizens around the world: Which companies people see as being socially and environmentally responsible?

Among the global public, a plethora of different names are mentioned, but no clear global leaders emerge. More to the point, around half of those we ask are unable to cite any company that they see as a leader in corporate responsibility.

For whatever reason, the efforts of businesses around the world to project a responsible message are failing to connect with large swathes of citizens. This problem of public inattention illustrates the main barrier to responsible business leadership for companies. The names at the top of the list globally — such as Coca-Cola and Microsoft — start at the significant advantage of having hundreds of millions of consumers who already know and trust their products.

Other factors are also at work, however. National "flagship companies" — Ford in the U.S., Samsung in Korea, Petrobras in Brazil — are continually cited positively by large proportions of consumers in their home markets, even if their names sometimes mean little elsewhere. They have managed to identify themselves in people’s minds not just with corporate success, but with national success, creating jobs and wealth, bolstering pride and making people feel optimistic.

Next page: Cutting through to public consciousness