COVID-19 is a chance for CEOs to show some humanity

Editorial: There's more to life than profit.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 24 Mar 2020

Not to get all metaphysical on you, what with the pandemic and all, but why do you exist?

As a business, that’s hardly a straightforward question to answer. To give your customers the best widgets possible, so they can live their best lives? To provide jobs making those widgets, bringing prosperity to your community? To pursue as much profit as possible for yourselves, nakedly?

The reality is usually some undefinable combination of the three, which requires a peculiar kind of doublethink from the business’s leaders. They may say in public that they exist for a higher purpose beyond profit, but if they really meant that they’d slash the dividends to zero and ramp up unprofitable business lines that do the greatest social good. Clearly there’s a limit to purpose. 

The coronavirus crisis is perhaps an opportunity to show that there’s also a limit to the profit motive. 

I’m no biologist, but as far as I can tell, the CEOs I meet are human beings, not caricatures of 19th century robber barons. They are as scared and concerned as everyone else by what’s going on, by the threat to the lives and livelihoods of their workers, their neighbours and themselves. They want to sleep well at night.

Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but this feels different to the crises we’ve all been through before, including the dark days of 2008-9. There’s a sense that we’re all in it together, that financial considerations are less important than they were because it’s a matter of life and death for so many people. 

Leaders often speak to us of their sense of responsibility towards their staff. As this pandemic rages and eventually breaks, and we return to some kind of normalcy, we will see just how heavily that responsibility weighed on them, how many jobs were saved despite the effect on the bottom line, how much money and effort was put to the service of the community.

The balancing act will go on - there’s not much point preserving jobs for a few months (furloughed or otherwise) if it kills the business before the economic recovery - but this is nonetheless a chance to earn back some of the public trust that has perhaps been lost over the last decade or more. 

There will be some stories of businesses acting in plain self-interest, maybe even putting people’s lives at risk by flouting social distancing rules, price gouging or staying open unnecessarily - but I hope that at the end of it the public will see the humanity of business people in the decisions they make.

They won’t be too forgiving if they do not.

Image credit: FPG / Staff vis Getty Images

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