Watching the Golden Globes last night, the message hit you like a two by four. Black dresses, biting jokes, poignant acceptance speeches — all hitting on the same set of themes. At one point in the evening, my teenage sons turned to me and my wife and asked innocently, “are they going to move on at some point from this activism thing?” No, guys. America is not ready to move on. Not even close.
This zeitgeist is proving very challenging for business leaders, who by and large prefer to remain nonpartisan and disengaged from politics. As The Economist recently observed, “The Trump era has made it harder for executives to stay above the fray.”
There are two separate but powerful forces coming together at this point in time driving this phenomenon. First, a recognition that great companies and great leaders are mission-driven, not just bottom line-driven. Today’s workforce (looking at you, millennials) are seeking inspiration from their work and want to associate with companies and brands that match their progressive values. Customers are holding brands accountable for not merely the quality of their products, but also the quality of their behavior.
Second, the daily headlines and dominant news cycles focused on policies and statements coming out of Trumpland make it impossible for business leaders to be bystanders. Instead, business leaders are being forced into the sometimes uncomfortable position of becoming upstanders. When political leaders behave in a manner inconsistent with a company’s mission and values, business leaders face a workforce and a customer community that demands speaking out in an authentic, visible fashion.
The State vs. America, Inc.
A prime example of this tension business leaders face was the resignation of the president’s entire business council in the wake of Charlottesville. Think about that for a moment — normally, these business councils are a CEO’s dream: an opportunity to network with other CEOs to generate useful deals and insights while building a direct relationship with the president and other powerful government figures who could shape your company’s fate (case in point: AT&T fighting to merge with Time Warner).
Other examples include the flare-ups between CEOs and state governments. When Indiana’s legislature passed a controversial religious freedom law (soon to be heard by the Supreme Court), many CEOs declared they would stop doing business in Indiana. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s actions and advocacy were particularly notable, canceling all Salesforce programs that would require customers or employees to travel to Indiana.
When North Carolina passed its restrictive bathroom law, business leaders reacted strongly, following the outrage of their employees and customers. Suddenly, the state that was a symbol for innovation and a business-friendly environment (e.g., Research Triangle Park luring biotech firms away from Massachusetts) was viewed as a pariah, costing it many billions of dollars according to an AP analysis.
Calling for a Movement
I struggle to find the right phrase to capture the essence of this movement, but the movement is undeniably growing into a more, powerful force that can’t be ignored. One that I like is Compassionate Capitalism, conveying that business leaders aren’t abandoning capitalism but rather seeking to exercise their capitalist muscles to pursue good works. Salesforce’s Benioff wrote an obscure book with this title nearly 15 years ago. Perhaps it is worth dusting off. The Pope’s surprise TED Talk last year called for a Revolution of Tenderness, particularly from the world’s tech elite:
“How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion. How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us. How wonderful would it be if solidarity — this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word — were not simply reduced to social work and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries.”
Whatever we call it, the trend is clear. Business leaders are being asked to step up and lead in unfamiliar territory. Many are not well prepared for the burden.
A recent Harvard Business School alumni asked me skeptically: “Are you all teaching students how to be leaders not just managers? Are you teaching them to solve big societal problems not just small business problems?” I think the answer is yes but I continue to reflect on what more we can be doing to prepare business leaders to be leaders during this historic time. Our local business group, The Alliance for Business Leadership, is proving to be one effective forum in this regard, but we need many more.
Society will be much better off if we can figure it out. And if business leaders can become upstanders, Oprah’s evocation of a new day will come all the sooner.