Should CEOs get political?

There is a moral dimension to business, but you can take it too far.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 17 Aug 2017

‘Hate is a cancer, and left unchecked it destroys everything in its path... I disagree with the president [Donald Trump] and others who believe that there is a moral equivalence between white supremacists and Nazis, and those who oppose them by standing up for human rights.’

That sounds like a perfectly reasonable reaction to the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Trump’s response to it. Countless ordinary people will have expressed something similar on Facebook, or in the pub. But the person writing it wasn’t exactly ordinary. It was Apple CEO Tim Cook, and the audience was his employees.

Business leaders have become increasingly political over the last couple of years, following Brexit and Trump’s election. The trend goes back further than 2016 though, to the rise of social media and, before that, of PR.

If you look at the earliest issues of Management Today in the late 60s, you’ll find CEOs spoke less often and more candidly to the press, but not about politics, at least not when it didn’t affect the business itself. But in an era when public figures are almost expected to splat their opinion on the latest episode of Game of Thrones onto their followers’ Twitter feeds, it’s hardly surprising politics has become fair game.

Some might ask whether it’s really necessary for a chief executive to affirm publicly that he or she doesn’t support violent racists. Perhaps if you’re regularly sitting around a table with the president of the United States, you do.

We’ve had a fair few debates about this recently. Some say there’s a reputational risk for CEOs to speak up on political issues, because they might alienate employees or customers that disagree with them, or because they expose themselves to accusations of hypocrisy or cynicism. Others have argued the risk is in staying silent, that staff and the broader public might see that as complicity.

The reality for public figures is that there’s a reputational risk whatever you say or don’t say. But beyond the question of whether it’s good for a corporate leader to speak up, there’s also the question of whether it’s right to do so.  

In a recent article for MT, PR guru Robert Phillips argued that business leaders have a moral responsibility to stand up not just for what they believe in, but for a better world. ‘The real bottom line is that there’s a moral and ethical dimension to business,’ he said.

For Manchester Business School’s Dil Sidhu, it’s a matter of citizenship: ‘speaking out against things you don’t agree with, well that’s part of democracy, I’d like to think.’

But the activist CEOs making political statements or pulling out of Trump’s business councils haven’t been speaking or acting as private citizens (even influential ones), they’ve been speaking and acting as the leaders of organisations. Cook’s message wasn’t on a personal blog, it was in an internal memo to all Apple staff; he wasn’t outlining his personal position, he was outlining the company’s position.

Does a leader have that right? A chief executive is not an elected political representative, he or she is an appointee tasked with maximising business outcomes, whether they be financial or otherwise. As Greene King CEO Rooney Anand told MT, ‘it’s an abuse of your position to impose political views on your colleagues.’

In this case, Cook was right to say that violent racism is beyond the realm of acceptable political debate. He spoke to his employees about Apple’s values, not its political position. But notwithstanding the fact that many people find their companies’ ‘shared values’ to be little more than a collection of banal slogans cooked up in a remote boardroom, it’s still a matter of opinion (the CEO’s opinion) where fundamental values end and politics begins.

(Take Brexit. A firm with values of openness and multiculturalism may have condemned the Brexit vote because it assumed it to be a rejection of those values, an assumption not everyone agrees with. Condemning racist killings is a no-brainer, but what about fox-hunting or grammar schools or marriage equality? Where does it stop?)

There’s no easy answer to this. Morally, you’d want leaders to speak out on political matters where fundamental values are at stake, but you don’t want them to become political.

Finding the balance requires judgement, which one hopes a leader might have. Sometimes they’ll get it wrong, but they should be forgiven that – they are not politicians, after all.     

Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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