What a 500-year-old movement can teach us about reforming capitalism

A woman looks at German theologian Martin Luther’s theses door during the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
A woman looks at German theologian Martin Luther’s theses door during the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
Image: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
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The global corporation is the most influential institution of our day, more powerful and resilient than all but a few governments. Our current approach to business is not fair, and our system is fraying. Inequality is growing, the middle class continues to lose ground, and our infrastructure and political system are suffering.

What would it take to rebuild the narrative about the purpose of the corporation, and the rules that govern key decisions?

We know that rebuilding the most powerful, influential institution of our day is possible. It has happened before.

In 1517, when Martin Luther, a lowly priest from a backwater corner of what is now Germany, posted his 95 theses on the doors of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, he did not plan to take down the Catholic Church, the most powerful institution of his age. He didn’t anticipate, or even want, the schism he created in Christendom. But his idea that God’s grace does not require intercession by priests or the payment of ‘indulgences’ was a bold departure from conventional thinking and a threat to the power structure of the day. As it gained traction, he made real enemies, right up to the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Catholic Church was all-powerful, but it could not withstand the will of the people seeking a better hand than they had been dealt. The Reformation, and the end of the middle ages, go hand-in-hand.

To make an equivalent game-changing shift in business, we need to embrace the promise of corporations, but also focus on the systemic barriers to unleashing this promise. Global companies, from Apple to Amazon, are the nexus of talent, innovation, problem solving skill, jobs, and wealth creation. They embody global reach and distribution systems that are too massive for most of us to fathom. They also wield influence in government and industry networks programmed to protect the status quo. Corporations have all of the tools to tackle complex problems, from inequality to resource decline.

What we need to do is shift mindsets about what is possible in business—the fundamental business purpose.

Luther did not create a movement alone. He was aided by smart friends and allies, enjoyed the protection of a powerful family and University, and benefited enormously from a game-changing invention, the printing press—the internet of the day. He boiled his thesis down to a list of complaints that could be presented on a couple of pages. All of this helped create what Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, have called a “sticky” idea. It was more than emotionally resonant. It had the right distribution network, the right level of credibility, and the right clarity to have staying power.

How does this translate against the power of corporations with global reach and capabilities?

To make “sticky” the idea that business is granted its license to operate for a public purpose requires leaders of all kinds to lean in—opinion leaders and journalists, influential business people, change agents in classrooms and boardrooms and NGOs, and social ‘intrapreneurs’ embedded in corporations. These leaders have the ability to model and craft the business narrative, the decision rules, and the business models that are critical to both healthy business enterprises and healthy society. To put it simply, the time is right, and the examples, stories, and vision that all of us bring to the table, will illuminate a better path forward.

Like Luther, as change agents we will need courage and conviction to stay the course and defeat the nay-sayers. But there is good news in the wings. The business networks needed to pursue a more powerful idea of business—more powerful than the shareholder-centric model of the last generation—are growing in strength. We are witnessing change in how business success is defined and taught in management education. We are experiencing greater agency among executives on complex problems—as businesses seize this moment to innovate on everything from workforce training to sustainable supply chains—and to demonstrate the long-term benefit to the bottom line and their industry. And the number of change agents and innovative thinkers inside global business is growing in strength and in numbers.

In the campaign to steer capitalism to a better place, many are needed.  There is no single authority who can do the job. To quote Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and it is us.”  The good news?  We have only ourselves to consider as we envision and act on a better idea.

Judith Samuelson is a vice president at the Aspen Institute.