What is the role of business in society?
Last week I took part in a panel discussion that debated “What is the role of business in society”. I thought you would be interested in what I had to say. My position is simple, the role of business is to create wealth. The word "wealth" comes from two old English words - "weal" and "th" meaning "the condition of well being" or as Robert Kennedy put it "the things that make life worth living". I would argue that the role of business has always been the same, to build and maintain the condition of well being. It's clear that over time society's views and perceptions of business's license to operate has changed but one thing has remained central, the drive for success and competitive advantage. We often talk about business as if it is a living entity in its own right, but business is a community of people, a cross-section of society, open to normal human frailties - largely motivated by greed and fear. So in this context, should we be surprised that the shorthand for well being has become profit, financial return and monetary reward. The motivation of the Lord Mayor’s current initiative on restoring trust in the City points to this issue - its starting point is to question what motivates business today; if its focus rests on two simple questions, is it legal and is it profitable...business is unlikely to develop the sustainable wealth creating engine that is critical for a successful society. But I sense that the role of business in society has been challenged at various points in history, particularly as society has developed and business - or more particularly business leaders - has been seen to be out of sync with public expectations around this condition of well being. So over time there have been changing views within society and business on: whose well being matters, what form does wealth take, and how should wealth be shared and distributed. When thinking about the purpose of business we must first focus on the...
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