06/27/2011 04:21 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2011

Business Must Lead From the "Mud" to Bring About Big Change

I saw a remarkable new play this weekend based on a real event and a divisive subject matter. In 1920, Harvard convened a "secret court" to dislodge what was seen as a significant threat to campus civility and safety -- homosexuality. The school officials ultimately convicted 14 men of "homosexualism" -- and then ran them off campus and out of Cambridge altogether, leaving life plans and reputations in the dust.

It was riveting to see the play less than 24 hours after learning that New York, the third largest state in the nation, had legalized gay marriage. From the 1920 lens, this moment was simply unthinkable. Regardless of how you view gay marriage, the change since then seems dizzying.

Whatever issue you feel strongly about, if you are in the "change" business, this turn of events is cause for hope.

At the same time, if you are fixated, like I am, on global warming, this moment seems particularly bleak. I am heading out to Colorado this week for the Aspen Institute's Ideas Fest -- my second trip to Aspen in a month. In early June I was there for the Aspen Environment Forum. Life is good in Aspen -- as long as you spend the day gazing at snow capped peaks under a brilliant blue sky -- and skip the sessions -- where a warming climate, water scarcity and decline of species headline, without relief.

There are many individuals and organizations, and even businesses that are "staying busy" as one moderator put it, while the population grows, food prices rise, and carbon is emitted at alarming, and growing, rates.

Where's the fix? Who drives the change? Earth Day was launched in 1970 as a sort of environmental teach-in intended to spur awareness and change. And while environmental consciousness is much further along in the court of public opinion than the men on trial experienced in 1920 Cambridge, we still poured more greenhouse gases into the planet's atmosphere last year than in any year before that. Climate is a ticking time bomb. We have a long ways to go.

At the Aspen Institute's Business and Society program, I think a lot about the ability of business to lead change. Business and society are in a complex dance. Society feeds commerce through public goods (think: rule of law, roads, air traffic controllers, education). Business delivers critical goods and services back to society -- and some costs, unintended and otherwise. When the costs seem to tip the balance, the public pushes back in the form of greater consumer scrutiny, and regulation, to create constraints and drive innovation.

Except lately, the "costs" that emanate from business and capital markets can seem like body blows -- and rather than drive innovation and change through regulation, the proverbial fox now seems to own the hen house. Abnormal, destructive weather patterns are Exhibit A in the need for a price on carbon, yet our business institutions and business trade associations seem either asleep at the switch, or more likely to slow progress than to lead.

Where do I turn for hope? I am going to let you in on a secret weapon. This month, the Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program selected its new group of First Mover Fellows: individuals embedded deep within large companies with great capacity to lead the way to achieving fundamental social change -- change that is also strategic and long-term beneficial for the companies involved.

Now in its third year, the First Movers Fellowship program is trying to help dispel the notion that idealism must die when working in the corporate sector. Many of the Fellows hail from middle management -- which one First Mover calls the "mud layer" -- sitting as it does between the aspirations of the CEO, and the energy of a new generation that refuses to leave its values in the parking lot. Through a rigorous application process, 20 new Fellows from companies like Wal-Mart, Google and FedEx have demonstrated the capacity to apply their brains and hearts to social and environmental challenges facing their firms. We hope to equip them with the political skills and communications prowess to make sure that their ideas have traction, so that they can help their companies find their voice once more -- and help pick up the pace of change.