Have Americans Lost Faith in Business Leaders?

In a June, 2013 Gallup Poll (Confidence in Institutions), only 9% professed a great deal of confidence in big business, while 13% indicated quite a lot of confidence. In the same poll, 31% expressed very little confidence in big business. Ten years ago the value was the same at 31%. Twenty years ago, 28%; thirty years ago, 26%.

The values for small business were far better by roughly three times in a great deal and quite a lot categories, at 29% and 36% respectively. Only the military polled higher than small business. Americans trust small-business owners in the creation of jobs more than any other entity.

Though the results over thirty years don’t indicate a dramatic shift in the public’s lack of confidence in big business, there is clearly room for improvement. What drives this lack of confidence? What are the sources? Is it the seemingly endless number of highly publicized corporate scandals and criminality? Is it executive compensation? Outsourcing to foreign countries? Mass layoffs? Cutting of or reducing employee benefits? Greed as a primary operating principle?

It is all of the above, and probably more. At the heart of the matter, in my opinion, is executive leadership. Because of the relatively easy access to owners of small businesses, they are known by the public in ways that leaders of big businesses are not. Hence, small business owners are more likely to be accessible, accountable, and admired by the members of their communities when they conduct their activities with integrity and responsibility. If they act otherwise, they’re finished and they darn well know it.

Leaders of large businesses may not be well known to their own employees, much less the general public. They are mostly seen in newspaper or online articles when commenting on quarterly results or gaining millions in stock options or announcing a domestic plant closure or an overseas plant opening. Is it any surprise, then, that the public expresses low levels of confidence in business executives they know very little about, and who they assume know and care very little about them?

Then again, the general public knows little about the military leaders who are entrusted with the nation’s defense, yet they indicate very high levels of trust in those leaders. Why the difference? Why is one group trusted and the other, not so much?

Military leaders are seen as having the public’s well-being at the heart of what they do. They are generally regarded as unselfish, committed to a life of service where the demands are great and the sacrifices are many. Great military leaders are seen as ambitious, sure, but never at the expense of their troops. The American military has long served this nation honorably and skillfully, and its tradition of sacrificial service has earned a place of special trust with the citizenry.

Business leaders should consider this difference carefully. No, business isn’t the same as military service. But great leaders are great wherever they are, in whatever capacity they serve in. And in all fairness, big business has also unquestionably served this nation well, in peace and war.

So, have Americans lost faith in business leaders? I think not. But public confidence isn’t improving, which reflects the need for business leaders to think anew how they are perceived by the public, and how that perception can be upgraded. The business leaders in the forefront on this in an honest, ethical, and assertive way will be noticed. And appreciated for it.