The role business can play in making the world a better place

After nearly five decades in business, I’m often asked what I’ve learned about leadership and the role that business can play in making this world a better place. I recently shared my thoughts on the subject at this year’s World Culture Festival – here they are:

From the day I took my first steps as an entrepreneur, I’ve felt that the only mission worth pursuing in business is to make people’s lives better. That’s why I started Student Magazine at the height of the Vietnam War, and it’s also why we launched Mates Condoms in the UK. It’s how we’ve been disrupting the airline business for over 30 years now, and it’s how we continue to bring change to many other industries, from mobile communications to hotels and, soon, space travel.

Richard Branson and Virgin branding

There’s a simple reason for that: if you’re driven only by the pursuit of wealth and fame, you’ve got your priorities in the wrong order, and you don’t stand much of a chance of making it in the long term. On the other hand, if you boldly put purpose over profit, the latter will follow the former. I’m convinced of that. 

After many successes (and also a few failures) in setting up new and disruptive ventures, we had an another idea: if we can change business for good in so many ways, we surely should be able do our part to change the world for the better.

So we started looking at some of the bigger challenges we all face on this beautiful planet – from climate change to armed conflict, from poverty to the failed war on drugs or the state of the ocean.

 

And we quickly realised that there is so much that every business and every business leader can do:

First off, businesses need to get their own house in order. Be an agent of positive change in your own enterprise and adopt responsible practices to eliminate the risks that often lie at the root of inequality and poverty.

Build more sustainable supply chains. Pay a living wage. Promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. Respect and advance gay rights. Minimise your footprint on the environment.

These can be daunting tasks, but they make perfect business sense. Why? Because fighting inequality and safeguarding our planet for future generations means building and growing tomorrow’s markets. I’m sure by now you get the idea: being an ethical business and being a successful one are not opposites. They are two side of the same coin.

At the same time, business success often comes with greater reach, influence and power. These are privileges to be used responsibly and wisely. But all of us in business have a role to play using our voices to challenge the status quo, highlight unacceptable issues, build new alliances for change, and celebrate those that are making a real difference.

As many of you know, I tend to speak up or write about global issues quite a bit. Very often, that will prompt others to step forward, either to join the growing chorus or to offer support. And so, slowly and gradually, movements emerge.

That’s how we set up The Elders, a group of independent global leaders convened by the wonderful Nelson Mandela to drive positive change through the power of wisdom and diplomacy. And it was also the primary motivation behind launching the B Team, a great line-up of business leaders committed to a different way of doing business for people and planet.

You see, whether through vocal public advocacy or quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, there is much we can do to mobilise others within our spheres of influence – our peers in business, our staff, customers.

And this is where true leadership can make a world of difference. It’s about being the change you would like to see, inspiring others to follow in your footsteps, while empowering those around you to be the best that they can be. Leaders never stop learning, and they never stop to reach for what seems impossible.

Virgin Unite, Nelson Mandela

Or to put in Seth Godin’s words: “Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” Whether you want to succeed in business or in making the world a better place, I couldn’t agree more. 

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