Can CEOs Save America?

10/20/2011 03:37 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011

Back in 2000, I invited the Archbishop of Poland to receive Project Love's Rescuer of Humanity Award. While he was in Cleveland, I took him to see some prominent CEOs. In a meeting with Henry Meyer, then KeyBank's principled CEO, the Archbishop commented that in many ways, such as physical appearance and social influence, corporate headquarters had replaced churches.

"I guess that makes the CEO our modern-day bishop," he said. Meyer replied, "With those remarks, I feel a great responsibility." The parallel has enormous implications. What if America's CEOs embraced this responsibility, and what could this do for our nation?

While some of today's CEOs have become poster-children for corporate greed, most do not fit that stereotype. Most work diligently to balance the interests of their varied stakeholders, from shareholders and employees to customers and the surrounding community. They traditionally lead local United Way campaigns, invest money in charitable causes and chair non-profit boards.

But they could do more. A lot more. An America that works is based on confidence, and our confidence has been shaken. America needs its CEOs to restore our confidence in the American Dream by showing us and telling us that they are committed to that dream, not only for themselves, but for all of us.

In the American psyche, the American Dream represents an upward bridge to success that boosts confidence, fuels sales and generates jobs. We all win when the dream is working. Until confidence in the dream is restored, there will be more Occupy Wall Streets and class stratification. With this instability, an economy and society that thrives under a predictable and stable America will continue to bounce up and down, undermining our social and economic future.

America's CEOs must become our Chief Enthusiasm Officers. They must speak out to America and define their purpose as working for the greater good of all. This is not just a public service, but in their own self-interest. As our country goes up or down, so will their businesses and their own reputations.

In prior crises, America's political and religious leaders stood up and stood out as cheerleaders and moral guides. Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King came to the rescue with moral certainty, bold plans and boundless enthusiasm. With political gridlock an unfortunate reality, we must turn to our CEOs.

America's CEOs have the influence and critical mass, via media access and millions of employees, to re-invigorate confidence in the American Dream. The best of them know where their company's and America's greatness come from -- our values. CEOs who are values-driven, who run their companies with the philosophy of purpose and profits -- not just profits -- are the cheerleaders needed to inspire their peers and re-establish the norm of doing well by doing good.

Values-driven CEOs can convince Americans protesting on the streets as well as those on the sidelines that greed is neither good nor acceptable, that the system can work again, and that principled leaders do care. Most Americans -- short of getting a job -- want to know that someone in authority just cares.

Physical structures often represent something more. Today we hear a lot about America needing to rebuild its infrastructure. In the same way, America needs to rebuild strong connections to its heart and soul. The financial meltdown could not have occurred without a preceding values meltdown.

It is within reach of CEOs who accept their moral responsibility as Chief Enthusiasm Officers to re-ignite the American Dream. Along with their employee emissaries, they can create a new surge of confidence and moral certainty that America will bounce back, and that the dream will continue on to the next generation.

To find how our shared values can connect us, go to