School @ the Centre of Community


A new paradigm for business in the time of COVID-19

This is the first in a series of articles on Maximising the Leadership Lessons from COVID-19, brought to you by Symphonia for South Africa’s flagship programme, Partners for Possibility (


The COVID-19 pandemic is leaving an indelible mark on the world. The drastic measures put in place to curb its spread are already precipitating change across industries. Once the worst of this crisis subsides, a vastly different dispensation will become our new reality.

Businesses are being hard hit. For the foreseeable future, the lifeblood of our local and global economies will be on the receiving end of the negative consequences brought on by the virus.

A major opportunity

What are the opportunities being presented to businesses in the post Covid-19 era? According to CEO of Thrive Consulting, Nathan Havey, a short-term survival mentality makes sense in times of crisis. But he adds that in times like these, counter-intuitive approaches become critically important. Thinking beyond a crisis bodes well for the survival of a business of any size.

The swift action taken by Bob Chapman, the CEO of the $2 Billion capital goods company, Barry-Wehmiller, is an oft-repeated case in point. The company, in 2008, faced a downturn and the prospect of mass retrenchments due to the devastating effects of the global recession. Chapman decided that no one would be retrenched. His view was that it would be better for every individual to suffer a little rather than anyone suffer a lot.  He reportedly proposed a furlough programme: Financially stable employees would have the option to take additional unpaid furlough time for a colleague for whom the furlough would cause severe financial repercussions.

Chapman, in his appeal to his team, said: "What would a caring family do if the family was stressed?"’

The response was a resounding: "Everyone would pitch in".

This approach seemed to resonate with Chapman’s team. Barry-Wehmiller employees were able to retain their jobs during a time when many lost the source of their livelihoods, and Chapman was able to preserve the prized company culture he had worked tirelessly to cultivate. Needless to say, the experience strengthened the bonds of trust among the employees and management. As the recession eased, Barry-Wehmiller slowly returned to its former glory. 2010 was the most profitable year in their operating history.

The story of Chapman’s forward-thinking in a crisis and its relevance to our current situation is clear: Leaders of businesses face a similar choice in the context of Covid-19. How a business handles this crisis will ultimately determine how it will fare in the future.

New solutions for a better future

Once the pandemic passes, what shifts in strategy and priority can businesses consider? As far back as 2012, John Mackey, the co-founder and co-CEO of the American supermarket chain Whole Foods, made a bold assertion. He stated that even though businesses were widely regarded as the most influential institutions in the world, the prevailing public perception was that they operate from a place of self-interest and greed and are uncaring and exploitative. His contention was that business, a stronghold of modern free market capitalism, has produced benefits beyond imagination but at a hefty cost to people, the environment and the Earth’s natural resources.

Sadly, it seems, business has not transformed willfully since then. At a time when our world is searching for new meaning among the ruins of a crisis, it is incumbent on business, as an influential entity in society, to emerge as a beacon of hope and change for all.

Conscious Capitalism: an operating system for business

Fast forward to 2020 and the lessons of Bob Chapman’s decisive action hold true: Who we are in a crisis is who we are.A business that has a higher purpose, core values and a vision for the world needs to remain steadfast and unwavering on those ideals at this critical time. A crisis of such epic proportions as Covid-19 is also a golden moment for businesses to re-evaluate their operational models and their reason for being.

In 2013, Mackey, together with Rajendra Sisodia, a marketing professor at Massachusetts’ Bentley University, introduced Conscious Capitalism to the world.

In their book, ‘Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business’, Mackey and Sisodia touted this philosophy as a “…a new operating system for business in far greater harmony with the ethos of our times…’’.

At the heart of Conscious Capitalism is the call for businesses to begin to serve the interests of all its principal stakeholders, including the environment. It does not minimise profit-seeking but encourages the assimilation of all common interests into a company's business approach.

The underpinning principles focus on a purpose beyond profits, the building of an ecosystem that optimises value for all stakeholders, an emphasis on conscious leadership that puts the ‘we’ before the ‘me’ and the creation of a conscious corporate culture that strengthens the social and moral fabric of the business while fostering a spirit of trust and cooperation among all stakeholders.

The data doesn’t lie: Conscious businesses outperform conventionally run ones by wide margins precisely because conscious businesses contribute to the overall betterment of society. When this crisis passes – and even during it - the expectation must be that business and government leaders the world over must lead efforts to uplift their respective economies. People will choose to engage with and actively support businesses who are seen to care deeply about them.

This is the commitment we need from leaders as a global population ravaged by COVID-19. History will judge business harshly if this moment - the COVID-19 moment - fails to become a catalyst for their own meaningful change and change for the world at large.


Zah’Rah Khan is a member of Symphonia for South Africa’s communications team.  She is a thought leader specialising in education, politics, law and research. Symphonia for South Africa and its flagship programme Partners for Possibility, are informed by and aligned with the tenets of Conscious Capitalism. The South African social change programme is committed to leadership development of school principals and corporate leaders and is aimed at those who want to carve out a life of significance. 


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