CEOs are obliged to have a social and political point of view

Dr. Richard Davis | 8 February 2023

The point is not to urge people to think a certain way or vote for a certain party. Instead, CEOs should be encouraging civil discourse and civic duty.

Now that we have passed the halfway mark of this presidential term, we find ourselves midway through this season of Politics in America. Over the next two years, a subplot will be playing out in executive offices throughout corporate America. As an organizational psychologist who has advised prominent CEOs for the past twenty years, I have seen the steady growth of a particularly vexing leadership conundrum amongst my clients: how to address social and political issues from the CEO seat.

This challenge is the direct results of a few key disruptions in our social order. The earth has shifted beneath us in three key areas: the rapid proliferation of social media, widespread reckoning with existential matters like climate change, and insurgent political forces that have broken social norms central to a healthy democracy. Perhaps the most insidious effect of this shift is the widespread dismantling of trust in core societal institutions.

With the erosion of such trust, people are left wondering: whom can they trust? Most CEOs I know have felt the magnetic pull to weigh in on social and political matters. At the same time, some close to them are advising them that they do so at their peril. So, what should the CEO do?

Indeed, chief executives are increasingly wading into thorny issues that were once considered taboo in business. In a dizzying era of progressive social ideas and political correctness, reversed abortion laws, healthcare in crisis, freedom of speech under question, gun violence, fiscal policy debates, and climate change threatening human existence, CEOs will be asked for their point of view. Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer, which surveyed over 32,000 respondents across 28 countries, found that when considering a job offer, 69 per cent expect the CEO to address “controversial issues I care about”, up nine percent from the previous year.

I would argue that CEOs have an individual responsibility here to lead beyond their office walls. At this point in our social evolution, business is inextricably intertwined with politics. Corporate social responsibility is not just a buzz phrase, it is real. It is one of the undeniable truths that most CEOs will be faced with a public policy that affects their business or a management decision that has political implications. Managing sociopolitical discourse has become a core competency required of today’s CEOs. Just ask former Disney CEO Bob Chapek about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ LGBTQ policy.

But in an era that many call the politicizing of everything, commenting on issues that, in theory, should be bipartisan or even apolitical, end up being a minefield of criticism. Weigh in, and you may get it wrong, labelled Woke or Alt-Right. Like a game of Whac-A-Mole, stick your head out and you might get knocked down. There is also a risk to staying silent, which may be seen as a sign of tacit approval of injustice—hide and you’ll be sought out. Thus, the CEOs of today are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

It just doesn’t matter. We live in a time when the world needs leadership. If global political leadership has failed us, and in many ways it has, we must look towards business leaders to guide us forward. Their employees need them to weigh in as much as the rest of us do. I’m not just talking about so-called “celebrity CEOs,” I mean everyone. Business in the Western world is a proximal effect of a free society; without a functioning democracy, capitalism as we know it quickly erodes.

CEOs must be the voice of democratic reason. What does this mean? I can tell you what it doesn’t mean: Elon Musk-ing your voting recommendations in snarky Tweets. Acts like this are sure to alienate employees and customers alike.

The point is not to urge people to think a certain way or vote for a certain party. Instead, CEOs should be encouraging civil discourse and civic duty. CEOs should be helping people understand issues in their wider context and helping people make up their own minds about where they stand on those issues. CEOs should be explicitly encouraging, even rewarding, employees and the broader community to vote, get involved, and engage in their duty to participate in the political process. CEOs must help organize and mobilize enterprise involvement in the preservation of democracy. As key drivers of a healthy, thriving society, they need to meet this leadership moment.


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