Leaders’ roles have swelled. But help is out there.

The purpose of a business is to create a customer,” wrote the late management guru Peter Drucker. Under Drucker’s mantra, leaders’ roles were to find people to sell to. Never easy, but straightforward.

How times change. In recent years, businesses have eclipsed governments and non-governmental organizations as institutions in which the public are willing to invest their trust. In 2020, the Edelman Trust Barometer showed that governments were the most trusted institutions, with businesses as runners-up. By 2022, governments had slumped to third place, behind NGOs. By 2024, businesses remained top of the trust league, the gap widening.

The trend is welcome: that the private sector is seen increasingly as a fair dealer that commands the faith of society is testament to the way in which organizations are embracing a wider brief in helping customers, communities – even countries.

Yet with great trust comes great responsibility. The shift led Edelman to a call to arms: “Societal leadership is now a core function of business,” it said. “We see an even greater expectation of business to lead as trust in government continues to spiral.”

Businesses have a larger role to play in shaping the world than they did in the past. Many firms grasp that without societal leadership, success of all stripes becomes harder to achieve. Progress on ESG is important – ethically and commercially. Yet none of this is easy. Broadening the role of a business leader from ‘creating a customer’ to ‘shaping a society’ is an expansion in scope so fundamental it requires a whole new set of skills and tools.

The reality is that many leaders struggle in the changed setting. But the old models of leadership are gone. We need new ones. We need leaders who care about society and are human-centric. They must focus on people as possibilities, not as resources. Only through a radical reframe will they thrive in a landscape in which the needs of society are profoundly intertwined with the needs of business.

Mastering leadership in this new world might present as an improbable, even impossible, task. It should not. Help is out there. At Duke Corporate Education we work with organizations to ready their leaders to become the spearheads the world demands: leaders who understand that better ESG performance fosters better community and employee relations and, thus, commercial growth.

I was struck by the words of Brian Callaghan, former vice president of resourcing, leadership development and learning at ArcelorMittal, with which Duke CE has been working for 15 years. “Leadership,” he says, “will have to continue to adapt in the coming years to ensure the wellbeing of our employees, our organization – and our world.” Callaghan is right. Business leaders who thrive will be those who transform their teams and set them on a course to continuously improve humanity and our planet. Those who fail in this will struggle to retain talent because employees are seeking greater purpose in their work.

The learning curve is formidable. But by working together, it can be overcome. The world has changed much since Drucker made his call about creating customers. But much of his wisdom endures. “Knowledge,” he once said, “has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes.” We must rethink how – and why – we lead. Together, we can secure the future.