Action for Democracy: A Crucial New Role for Business Leaders

daniella ballou-aares

In 2019, nine in 10 business leaders reported feeling concerned about the state of our democracy. Half felt they had a personal responsibility to act. They are not alone—even before the pandemic, large majorities of Americans expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, and trust in American democracy is falling.

Many business leaders see our weakening democracy and civil discourse but struggle to know how they can help. Empowering business leaders to take action has been the focus of Leadership Now since it was founded in 2017 by 10 Harvard Business School alumni. Addressing the challenges facing our democracy requires all of us to do our part.

Business leaders can bring valuable expertise, approaches, perspectives, and networks to the cause of revitalizing productive civic engagement. At Leadership Now, we see the positive impact business leaders can have, working in concert with others to protect, reform, and reimagine our democracy.

However, the current role of business in political affairs  does not reflect the widespread concern business leaders say they have about the state of our democracy. Even though business voices are among the most powerful in Washington, with nine out of 10 lobbyists representing corporate interests, the majority of HBS alumni believe that business’s political engagement with politics is adversely affecting the country by promoting special interests over the general welfare.

Business leaders can and should rewrite that playbook. Here’s how:

Speak up. Businesspeople can use their networks to publicize threats to democratic norms. This is not an abstract concept. National governments listen when business speaks. Last year, business groups—sometimes at great personal risk—spoke out about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s manipulation of Turkey’s  currency immediately before an election, so as to maintain a facade of economic strength over significant weakness. In the end, after more than 20 years of rule over the Istanbul mayoral elections, his party lost. And when he declared the results invalid, those same business groups spoke up again, rallying governments and investors around the world to denounce Erdoğan’s undemocratic actions.

Enable and promote civic participation. This election cycle, many businesses are using their platforms to promote civic engagement efforts. They are partnering with groups such as Civic AllianceTime to Vote, and Power to the Polls to protect mail-in voting, early voting, and safe, readily accessible in-person polling. And as the links between race and democracy become clear, companies are engaging in efforts to engage Black voters. Supporting civic participation is a core pillar of Leadership Now’s Business Pledge for Racial Equity, which secured more than 1,200 signatures from CEOs and other senior executives, professors, and others.

Lend expertise. Business leaders often have unique skills and insights, especially in organizational development and management. When J.B. Lyon—an entrepreneur and Leadership Now member—and Harvard Negotiation Project co-founder Bruce Patton—co-author of Getting to Yes—saw Congress’s outdated organizational structures, they set out to act. The created the Rebuild Congress Initiative, which spearheaded the formation of the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. The Committee has since issued 45 unanimous recommendations and engaged more than 100 members of Congress in its work.

Harness market research innovations. Businesses are among the best at understanding what drives their markets. Let’s apply this expertise to the larger society. For example, when the creators of More in Common saw the effects of polarization—in the 2015 Bataclan attacks in Paris and the 2016 murder of British MP Jo Cox, a supporter of refugees—they began data analysis efforts to understand the true causes of political polarization. Now, the group works to strengthen the health of democracies around the world, including offering insights into the psychology behind polarization here in the United States.

As John Lewis wrote just before his death, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” America, now more than ever, needs action. It needs leaders—including those in business—who are grounded in support for our democratic ideals and ready to work in partnership with others to renew our country. Leadership Now, informed by bright thinkers and accelerated by smart dollars, offers a ready a platform for that action. We find hope in a new cadre of business leaders rising to the challenges, and we look forward to many more joining our movement, committing to our principles, and making a positive, urgent contribution to American democracy.