How cultivating purpose-driven leaders and businesses can transform the world for the better

“Right in Principle, Right in Practice”, the keynote speech by Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever at the inaugural INSEAD The Force for Good Conference highlights that cultivating purpose-driven leaders and businesses can transform the world and achieve a sustainable future.

Businesses represent approximately 60 percent of global GDP, 80 percent of financial flow and 90 percent of job creation,” Polman said. “Business cannot be a bystander in a system that gives it life in the first place. We cannot find the solutions to these world challenges if we don’t start to do things differently and see things differently.”

Polman demonstrated how Unilever’s ambitious vision to fully decouple growth from its overall environmental footprint and to increase its positive social impact has not only brought sustainability and positive social impact to the table, but simultaneously created twice the market growth and 300 percent shareholder return to Unilever’s bottom line over a 10-year period.

With two and a half billion consumers using Unilever’s products every day in about 190 countries in the world, the company set a goal to reach one billion people. No governments alone in the world can do that.” He added, “And interestingly, the more you do that, the more you address these societal issues, the better you do, and the better the company grows.”

Polman concluded that it is vital to have purpose-driven leaders and organisations focused on sustainability – driving growth by not only looking at the bottom line, but also at long-term impact to societies.

Transforming people: changing mindsets and social norms

Ilian Mihov, Dean of INSEAD and Professor of Economics, shared similar insights. During his speech on the Dean’s Vision for Business and Society, he outlined INSEAD’s ambitious goal: “Our goal is to change social norms, to change the way that we think about what it takes to do business. And we want to change mindsets. We want our students, our alumni, our community to continue transitioning in the way that we think about how we make decisions. At strategic level, what should we be doing? At operational level, how we are doing these things? So, in the process of decision making, we want automatically, instinctively to integrate the ideas of what we have as an impact on society.”


INSEAD’s mission is clear – to develop responsible leaders who transform business and society.  The school recently launched The Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society. The Institute will not only conduct research, but also engage INSEAD’s students and its expanding network of 57,000 alumni to “challenge the status quo, and to find out what are the social norms today that our children, generations 20, 30 years from now, will find ridiculous and absolutely unacceptable,” according to Dean Mihov.


Polman said, “I am here supporting INSEAD and applauding the school to simply do more because it is one of the institutions that can produce the leaders that the world needs. The best investment we can make is in our future leaders – and in people that are more purpose-driven, who think long-term, intergenerational, people that understand the values of working in partnership and have a high level of humanity and humility as global challenges are being tackled.

Transforming the world: inclusiveness and sustainability

The takeaway from Polman’s speech was clear – moving forward, business needs to align more with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed in the United Nations. Polman shared research that implementing the SDGs now can unlock $12 trillion a year in economic opportunity and create 380 million jobs.

The timing could not be better. The world is starting to understand that the cost of not moving to a circular economy, the cost of not decarbonising the global economy and the cost of inaction on critical issues is immense. We face new risks and new levels of risk.

Today is an inflection point in my view. Paul mentioned many issues that the world is facing, in terms of health, gender, climate change and income inequality. We see that the world is moving on a path that is very risky. We also see that there is a will to change. I think we can do it. I think that INSEAD can be a leader in efforts to change these social norms,” said Mihov.

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