12/27/2013 02:05 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2014

Seeking Quiet but Effective Business Leaders for 2014

With holiday cards still trickling in, I especially appreciate a well-written Christmas letter with an idea or image that stays with me after the letter joins the pile. It might be the bright eyes of a new baby or an original artwork. This year, the award goes to my friend Liz who ends her annual letter with the event of her mother's death, and the need for the next generation to step up their game and become the connective tissue that keeps families together.

I go through the rituals of the holidays each year, invoking my own Mom's spirit, but knowing her shoes cannot be filled. I am ill-prepared for this job; it cannot be time for me to step up. I realize, of course, that my Mom probably felt the same way when it was her turn to take over, and so on.

Family dynamics are one thing but the need for new leadership is apparent today across sectors of our economy. With pesky shareholders, uncertain markets and global competition to worry about, it's easy for business executives to look to the other guy to take the first step on complex problems. Yet, from the work required to convert to a low-carbon economy to job creation, business is the key to unlocking innovation and investment that is critical to our long term success. Real progress requires a blend of policy incentives in the public space where commerce and government meet up, and new business protocols to drive the change home. Both require business leaders willing to get their hands dirty.

Robert Crandall, who led American Airlines through the tumultuous years of deregulation, acknowledges the challenge of leading from business back in 2007 when he agreed to be interviewed for an article about executive pay. Crandall retired in 1989, before CEO pay reached dizzying heights, never having made more than $5 million year. He said he was finally able to criticize "a market system that rewards a few people in extraordinary ways and leaves others behind" once he retired, as he no longer had to "worry that his 'radical views' might damage the reputation of American [Airlines] or that of the companies he served until recently as a director."

Yet real leadership doesn't require speaking out. Game-changing work - in families as well as other organizations - happens behind the scenes.

For example, Edwards Deming created the platform for the quality movement that transformed manufacturing beginning with a private dinner party of Japanese business executives. Business leaders in the 1940s worked closely with government to develop the Marshall Plan and to network thousands of business owners to retool and absorb the troops when they returned home, avoiding a recession after the war. Today, a coalition of executives in the European North Atlantic is working to change the market incentives for overfishing cod, to protect both species and their livelihoods.

This same kind of leadership could be effective in executive compensation where quiet actions and coalitions can work to influence protocols and behaviors for an entire industry or market. And quiet action is also needed in critical areas of public policy, where we need the leadership of mainstream business to come to our senses and create the right incentives to reduce dependence on carbon.

Last week, I visited with Dan Biederman who leads several business improvement districts that bring private capital and innovation to urban development in New York City. Mr. Biederman now consults with public and private entities around the globe, but he was a mere 26 years old when he became the first employee of the novel Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, formed in 1980 to turn around a crime-ridden, drug-infested urban space at the heart of Manhattan.

A walk in Bryant Park today is a testament to his success as both leader and chief organizer of the political will and capital to get the work done. Success took decades and was not assured when he put his ideas into a document for board approval after only a few months on the job. Thinking back on the odds he confronted, Biederman states, "My board at the time just shrugged and said--in effect--let's see what you can do."

2014 offers up real problems - and the solutions lie in working across sectors. Success requires a willingness to speak out, but deep change will be measured in the actions of quiet coalitions and organizations that artfully blend self interest and public interest. Here's to the New Year. Let's see what we can do.