The Long Hot Summer (for U.S. CEOs) of 2017
Every summer begins with the promise of rest and relaxation. Then something happens that requires not just considered thought, but new thinking. In the summer of 2016, it was what Brexit would mean for the U.K. and Europe in the face of rising Populism (which sputtered thanks to the French election). This summer, it was the rapidly devolving presidency of Donald J. Trump, which went from one crisis and misstep to another with no apparent end in sight. Just as we were becoming anesthetized to the new “normal,” the tragedy of Charlottesville, Virginia happened.
There are various approaches to the issues raised by Charlottesville: moral, social, political, historical, race, class, etc. But what interests me here is whether we’ve reached a tipping point for corporate leaders in their calculations about whether, when, and how they should, if ever, take public stands on “events” like this.
That question became relevant after Trump uttered, recklessly, a moral equivalency between those protesting against hate, and the haters themselves, namely the white supremacists and Neo-Nazis. In short order, the CEOs of two presidential committees, comprising many of the most powerful corporate leaders in the country, resigned and disbanded.
So, to put a finer point on the question: has the cauldron that is American politics today imposed a new obligation – even a citizen’s duty – on CEOs to speak out? And not just on what happened at Charlottesville, but on a host of other heated topics from climate change to immigration? Has the role of the corporate leader in civil society changed? If the answers are “Yes,” then corporations are going to find themselves more frequently in the crosshairs of fractured, divided and increasingly polarized public opinion, from the left, right, and center and all the shades in-between. Corporate communications staff are going to be very, very busy.
There is no doubt that this is a historic shift. “Motherhood and apple pie” public positions for CEOs have always been the order of the day. Most CEOs like to play it right down the middle of the fairway. If divisive statements were made, they were intemperate – albeit revealing – slips, and always costly to the CEO’s and the corporation’s reputation.
So, what has changed? Two things.
First, as UCLA political scientist John Zaller frames it, topics in the public discourse in the post-war era – such as racial hatred and antisemitism – are subject to “one-sided information flows”: when extremists try and inject these views into the mainstream they’re pushed back to the far margins and dark places of opinion. What’s changed is that thanks to Trump these topics have suddenly become “two-sided.” He’s trying to bring extremist views into the mainstream as a new “norm.”
Second, it is finally dawning on many U.S. citizens that while it has always been important what the president does, it may be even more so who he is, fundamentally, as a person. And then when we conclude who that person is, when our worst fears about the character of the man are realized, the question turns inside out. What really matters, we realize, is not who this president is. We know who Trump is, and he’s not going to change. What matters is who are we?
I believe this very pressing question – who are we going to be when crucially important principles and values are at stake and what will we do to defend them – is increasingly being posed in corporate boardrooms today. Not every customer, client and business partner is going to like it when a CEO takes a principled stand like the one so many (but not all) on the president’s commissions did. Organizations are going to have to carefully navigate that issue. But we are entering an era in the United States where taking a stand will become more and more important. Get ready for it.
All the best,
Montieth M. Illingworth
August 24, 2017
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