Getting Beyond the Walls

Most every business wants to be located in a thriving community, but not every business wants to play an active community role.

So, when businesses work well with nonprofits and government, it’s a noteworthy achievement. Writing in McKinsey Quarterly, health executive Mary Brainerd and bankers Jim Campbell and Richard Davis describe their success in bringing together the public, private and social sectors to improve life in Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

They’ve named their effort the Itasca Project, and they’ve focused much of their attention in recent years on higher education, including trying to ensure that students are properly trained to meet the needs of area employers. This tight focus, they explain, came about largely because they’ve learned “the importance of carefully selecting issues where you believe you actually can make a difference, rather than those where you would like to.”

The authors conclude: “The way we see it, leaders spend decades acquiring influence that typically peaks when they reach the very top of their organizations. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the opportunity, at that point in your life, to engage with others in the same position and do something bigger than all of you?”

Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Source: Wikipedia

To this rhetorical question, Peter Drucker would have answered “yes.” And he would have gone further.

In his 1999 essay “The New Pluralism,” Drucker pointed out that we live in a pluralist society that imposes civic responsibilities on all institutional leaders. Drucker warned that previous pluralist societies had destroyed themselves by neglecting the common good (a theme we’ve taken up before).

“If our modern pluralist society is to escape the same fate, the leaders of all institutions will have to learn to be leaders beyond the walls,” Drucker wrote. “They will also have to learn to become leaders in the community.”

As for the details of how Itasca is tackling its mission, Drucker would have approved of those, too. As a frequent proponent of “planned abandonment,” he would have liked Itasca’s pledge to disband if its purpose has been served. He would also have liked Itasca’s targeted focus and realism about its competencies.

Above all, though, he would have applauded the premise of Itasca—that businesses have a stake and a responsibility in improving their communities. “The health of the community is a prerequisite for successful and growing business,” Drucker wrote. “And it is foolish to hope that these problems will disappear if only one looks the other way. Problems go away because someone does something about them.”

How should business executives go about becoming “leaders beyond the walls”?