Rise of society: navigating human disruption with purpose

Valerie Keller,

EY Beacon Institute Global Leader

More about the author

As an Executive Director in Ernst & Young's Global Markets group, Valerie focuses on strategic transformations working with the C-suite and boards of large global organizations. She is also the global leader of the EY Beacon Institute, a community of organizations and individuals advancing a purposeful transformation of the working world.

Responsive business leaders can no longer ignore the human element of disruption as they seek to navigate into the future.

Large crowd of people from above

As world business leaders gather at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting they will face a global reality that’s vastly different from last year. 

Dramatic disruption from accelerating automation, digitalization and dematerialization are massive forces changing how we work and live. The 4th Industrial Revolution is driving a human revolution. What does it means to be human in an increasingly technological, interconnected world? How do we live and work -- and how do we live and work together?

The political and social forces reflected in two rock-the-world events in 2016 – Brexit and the US presidential election – reflect the “rise of society.” Within that is a cacophony of voices who fear they will be left behind, automated and offshored out of a job, replaced by an immigrant or a robot. Equally there are those who fear isolationism, nationalism, racism and all the ”isms” that do not reflect their values.

All those voting citizens – whether they were “In” or “out, were “with her” or not – have vastly different world views. But at the end of the day, the voting public, all of us, are human beings trying to figure out how to be safe, happy and live with purpose in a world in transition.

There are two prominent ties that bind people at both ends of the spectrum: low trust in big global institutions and high expectations to provide for wellbeing.

It’s this human revolution – this rise of society – that business leaders cannot ignore. It is at our door.

How will leaders respond?

Responsive and responsible leadership is the theme of this year’s Annual Meeting. But who are business leaders responsive to? What are they responsible for?

Early results from new EY research to be released soon reveal that more than one-third of the 1,400 business leaders surveyed define the purpose of their company as bringing value to a broad set of stakeholders – investors, employees and consumers. Research we conducted with Harvard Business Review Analytics in 2015 already indicated the strong relationship between this of human-centric purpose and corporate performance.

The old maxim that the purpose of business is to maximize profits might have been true for the times. But times have changed and the paradigm has solidly shifted.

Purpose is more than a tagline

But whether purpose is rhetoric or action is the key. Having a purpose statement (often a good-for-the-world brand tagline) is not quite the same as being purposeful. Organizations that effectively live their purpose through their strategic objectives, capital allocations, day-to-day activities and experiences report a greater capacity for growth, successful innovation and transformation.

Our upcoming new research also shows that the current disruption offers businesses a big opportunity – a key inflection point– to think and act in new ways for “good disruption.” The Compact for Responsive and Responsible Leadership that the World Economic Forum is inviting delegates to sign seeks to accelerate this movement.

In Davos this year, we at EY are convening a group of beacons who saw this market shift coming and have been on a purpose-led transformation. These transformational leaders are building the type of resilient, human-centered organizations that grows the currency of trust in this relationship-driven, networked and disruptive world. They are leading the way by using purpose to move from rhetoric to action which balances technological innovation, economic growth and human well-being. To me, this is responsive leadership in action.