The ‘Unique Obligation’ Of CEOs: 35th Annual Chief Executive of the Year Gala

‘This world is desperate for effective leadership,’ Marshall Cooper, CEO of Chief Executive Group, told attendees at this year’s virtual celebration. ‘And CEOs are uniquely well equipped to serve society and advance humankind.’

Remarks by Marshall Cooper, CEO of the Chief Executive Group, to open the 2020 CEO of the Year gala, delivered from the Nasdaq Marketsite in New York City, Oct. 20, 2020. Go to Full Coverage of the Event > 

Good afternoon. I’m Marshall Cooper, CEO of The Chief Executive Group, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to the 35th CEO of the Year Award Gala. 

I’d like to begin by thanking our sponsors who helped make today’s event possible starting with our colleagues at Alix Partners. Also thanks to Pure Insurance, IBM and Tata Consultancy Services. A special ‘Thank you’ goes to NASDAQ, as well. 

We gather here today to celebrate, to find inspiration and to recommit ourselves. 

We are here to honor Brian Moynihan, who was selected by his peers as the 2020 CEO of the Year. Brian is an extraordinary leader, and he and his team at Bank of America deserve recognition and accolades.   

But in addition to recognizing Brian, we gather to recommit ourselves to the free enterprise system, which has done more to improve life for mankind around the globe than any other force in human history. 

It is, of course, not a perfect system – too many people are not participating in growth, not enjoying prosperity and are simply not exposed to enough opportunities for better lives.  

Still, the simple fact is that the free market has done more to lift more people than any other economic system ever developed, and has proven itself over multiple generations.  

Take quality of life: according to the World Bank, before Covid hit we cut the number of people living in extreme poverty from 37% of the world population to around 11% — a 70% reduction and an extraordinary improvement in the human condition affecting billions of people. 

Or take human health: according to the WHO in 1990 the world lost 12.5 million children under age 5 each year to premature death. That figure was reduced by 81% as of last year (of course even one is still too high). 

Or let’s examine education: As the late Hans Rosling pointed out in his amazing book “Factfulness,” since 1970 across all religions, cultures and continents, almost all parents can now afford to send all their children to school—sons AND daughters. Globally, 90 percent of girls of primary school age now attend school. For boys, the figure is 92 percent. 

The reason? It isn’t magic. As most of you would guess, these gains closely correlate to the substantial increase in the percentage of the world’s people actively participating in entrepreneurial free-markets. 

It is, of course, easy to overlook these kind of real, substantial wins in tough times like these. Perhaps that’s because of the very human tendency to focus on the immediate, not the long-term. Or, as Rosling wryly notes, it’s because an ever-freer, ever-more click-obsessed global press has a tendency to focus on the negative. 

After all, as he says, “Journalists who reported flights that didn’t crash or crops that didn’t fail would quickly lose their jobs.” 

Many in academia don’t help, creating their own alternative universe of where we are and where we’ve been. Politicians who seem to believe they can’t gain power without creating outrage aren’t benefitting humanity much either. 

Taken together, there is a real and growing danger that we may lose perspective on what humankind has accomplished in the last 100 years using the tools of the free market. Too many people have become convinced that “capitalism is broken,” is irredeemable and needs to be replaced. With what? Who knows. 

But those here today know the opposite is true. We know that free markets are a force for good. We know that they have the capacity to provide more social mobility, innovation, choice and prosperity than any other force in human history. 

And because of that, we have an obligation—a unique obligation, as stewards of this system—to ensure that it is fair and open to people of all races and creeds. That it provides mobility for all. That we are educating and empowering others to help achieve our highest ideals. 

Like all of us at Chief Executive Group, I hope each of you finds inspiration in this year’s honoree. He is an incredible leader. But he is also, in many ways, like the vast majority of CEOs we meet and talk with every day. Men and women who lead lives of integrity and courage, and earn the trust placed in them every day by their employees, their customers, their communities and their shareholders.   

This world is desperate for effective leadership, and CEOs are uniquely well equipped to serve society and advance humankind. 

Thank you for joining us to help celebrate this unique opportunity—and unique responsibility. We hope it inspires you to recommit to your roles as leaders, at a time when your leadership matters more than ever before

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Chief Executive magazine (published since 1977) is the definitive source that CEOs turn to for insight and ideas that help increase their effectiveness and grow their business. Chief Executive Group also produces e-newsletters and online content at chiefexecutive.net and manages Chief Executive Network and other executive peer groups, as well as conferences and roundtables that enable top corporate officers to discuss key subjects and share their experiences within a community of peers. Chief Executive facilitates the annual “CEO of the Year,” a prestigious honor bestowed upon an outstanding corporate leader, nominated and selected by a group of peers, and is known throughout the U.S. and elsewhere for its annual ranking of Best & Worst States for Business. Visit www.chiefexecutive.net for more information.