Today more than ever, business leaders have a dual role. Both in the UK and the US, the geopolitical issues have had (and continue to have) far-reaching consequences and it has forced them to confront highly-charged views.
Brexit, Scottish independence, the rise of Donald Trump and the direction of travel of his White House, North and South Korea, the Middle East, the nuclear threat – all spectacularly complex international issues that have made business leaders take a stand on debates that had once been confined to the political world.
The challenge of course is to be able to balance corporate leadership and responsibility in a volatile, politically-charged landscape.
Business and government have always been intertwined but while presidents and prime ministers seek the counsel of CEOs on any number of matters, they are rarely platforms for political activism.
American CEOs are trying to find ways to engage with a Trump administration that is exceptionally sensitive to criticism (at least more so than those of Barack Obama and George W. Bush) as their British counterparts are struggling with the long-term effects and unique challenges that Brexit brings.
The business climate is as affected by the political landscape as it has even been and a number of questions keep being asked amongst the upper echelons of corporate bosses (but which filter down to all leaders on one level or another) –
What does my business stand for? Is this issue important enough for me to speak out on? How do I balance consumer and employee activism with the risk of becoming engaged in high-profile political rows?
One particular example from the US brought the debate front and centre. In August 2017, three people died and more than 30 were injured during violent, racially-motivated clashes between white supremacists and counter-protestors over plans to remove a Confederate statue. In the aftermath, President Trump tweeted, condemning an ‘egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.’
The trouble was, there was only an egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence from one side (no points for guessing which one). This brought corporate America into the debate. Many of the nation’s most respected business leaders who sat on any one of the president’s advisory councils voiced their full-throated opposition to how the White House handled such a political hot potato but then who faced a public backlash and a wave of calls to remove themselves from the business councils they sat on.
Within 48 hours, the Manufacturing Council and the Strategy & Policy Forum had been disbanded. More followed in the aftermath.
What this did was two-fold. It allowed, for the first time in the mainstream, for business leaders to have a voice. It became fair game for them to say ‘this isn’t OK and I’m going to say so.’ It also set the tone for a more vocal, socially-active and socially-aware business community.
What was happening in America was mirrored back in the UK. Corporate leaders have had a similarly testing period of political uncertainty (albeit without the bloodshed) trying to strike a balance between their own business needs and a desire to avoid becoming engaged in hot political topics.
Traditionally, the British business community has stayed well away from getting entangled in political debate but have been somewhat forced into it thanks to the EU referendum and the direction in which the government has travelled since. As complex – and barely understood by the so-called finest minds of our generation, let alone the public who had to decide – as the effects of Brexit are, businesses large and small have had to find a balance between speaking out on the real impact of Brexit on their operations and being accused of falling down on one side or another, much to the annoyance of the side they didn’t opt for.
As the world’s political stage navigates through unprecedented periods of geopolitical uncertainty, there does appear to be a balance between activism and being overtly political. Certain events demand political intervention from the corporate world just as some don’t.
The top level of the corporate world who sit on these advisory panels, councils and forums have a responsibility not just to their employees but to their shareholders and most importantly, their customers. They can’t sit quietly at the back while political issues that negatively impact the society they serve go unspoken.
The world is ripe and ready for outsiders who are willing and able to challenge the status quo; to help craft the political message and vitally, the strategy for engagement with the wider audience. Business leaders will now be judged not just on the profits they deliver to shareholders but on the strength of their character. Having the courage of their convictions to speak out when it’s required will be a de facto requirement and we may see more business leaders moving towards the political top table. Trump did it. Macron in France did it….
There are, however, reputational risks from taking a clear position on a political debate. Not everyone will agree – and that’s OK – but it’s important not to shy away from making a decision because it might upset some people. It will upset some people, but if, by speaking out, it creates a framework for debate, there is always the possibility for positive change.
Corporations aren’t political parties and nor should they be, but if there’s an issue affecting their business, employees or the wider community that requires a voice, a true leader will be that voice.
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