Opinion
Merck & Co. CEO Kenneth Frazier speaks to media in State College, Pennsylvania, in 2011. Photo: Fred Vuich /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images.

Ken Frazier: The Strongest Man in the World

After a weekend of political turmoil and violent demonstrations, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned in protest from the president’s American Manufacturing Council. Yale’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld calls on other business leaders to meet the test of character and civic leadership by similarly following through on their stated convictions.


This article was originally published on Fortune.com on Tuesday, August 15, 2017.

Crises are tests of character. Coming off this weekend, Merck CEO Ken Frazier passed heroically. President Donald Trump initially failed and got a make-up exam two days later. But the relative silence of much of the U.S. business community was most noteworthy. Many CEOs challenged the White House earlier over controversial immigration, climate treaty, and trade agreement matters as well as over tax and regulatory issues, but where are they now?

A seat at table may be great if they use their voices. Sitting there as PR props or wallpaper is something else. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer identifies CEOs as now some of the most trusted sources, with public officials and the clergy dropping. They must use that precious bully pulpit.

Frazier resigned from President Trump’s manufacturing advisory council Monday in protest to Trump’s initially tepid weekend response to the hate crimes of radical right wing groups in Charlottesville, Va. While President Trump ultimately condemned the violent clash, naming the KKK and Nazis, he initially blamed the violence “on many sides.”

Frazier quit, commenting, “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy.” He explained that “as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.” Trump did not need two days to consider a response, and attacked Frazier, saying via Twitter that the resignation will give Frazier “more time to lower ripoff drug prices.”

Incredibly, no major CEO initially came out in direct support of Frazier, but Meg Whitman of HPE and Paul Polman of Unilever did stand by Frazier by midday. Frazier is a not only a highly admired leader, but a very effective CEO. In this era plagued by short-termism, he championed the long-term investment of 12% to 15% of revenues into R&D with great success. He has led this $40 billion firm to soaring scientific, financial, and public health triumphs. Merck has produced more new medicines than any of its peer competitors, including the newly cleared Keytruda, which helps the 160,000 people a year afflicted with lung cancer. Plus, Frazier has been one of the most outspoken critics of abusive drug pricing, identifying villains by name and working his trade association to help identify abuses.

Did other CEOs have to quit themselves? No—they could have rallied around a peer who, as only one of five black Fortune 500 CEOs, took a brave stand for what they claim they too support.

Frazier is the epitome of the American Dream. He grew up surrounded by gang violence in a tough North Philadelphia community. Inspired by his hardworking father, a well-informed custodian who worked at UPS for 37 years, read two newspapers a day, and revered Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Frazier became a champion of justice on many levels. A Harvard-trained lawyer, he defended wrongly accused individuals and institutions. He helped his mentor Roy Vagelos donate the drug Mectizan, which cures river blindness, and is consumed by battles against society’s most vexing diseases.

Sure, after several hours, we saw comments endorsing the rich diversity tapestry of American life from many individual CEOs, including Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, but where was the support for Frazier’s courage? As Andrew Ross Sorkin reported in the New York Times, “When I asked one chief executive Monday morning why he had remained publicly silent, he told me: ‘Just look at what he did to Ken. I’m not sticking my head up.’ Which, of course, is the reason he said I could not quote him by name.”

Sure, this divide-and-conquer scheme is core to the Trump style: pitting Merck vs. Pfizer; Ford vs. GM; Boeing vs. Lockheed; China vs. Russia—but every CEO can feel vulnerability speaking out alone. That is why collective voice is needed. As Benjamin Franklin is said to have warned, if we do not hang together, we surely hang separately.

This is just the reason that high-minded trade groups such as the Business Roundtable supposedly exist, but they’ve been strangely silent, too. Forty years ago, the titans on the Business Roundtable, such as IBM’s Tom Watson; Exxon’s Clifton Garvin; GE’s Reginald Jones; and DuPont’s Irving Shapiro urged the Business Roundtable to take such courageous stands. Instead, we see parochial self-interest and bureaucratic cowardice. Now, 80% of the leaders at CEO summits complain that they get little value from these trade groups, despite a seven-fold increase in such advocacy group spending.

This past July 4th, a group of Panama City Beach, Florida, bathers provided a leadership model for American CEOs. A family of five was swept out to sea by a dangerous riptide. Four attempted rescuers were similarly swept away in distress. With no rescue equipment visible, 80 bathers across race, gender, and age locked arms to form a human chain and rescued all at the inspiration of Jessica Simpson, a courageous passerby. Simpson did not wait for permission, but jumped into action.

Frazier did not wait for the Business Roundtable or a shareholder referendum to prompt his actions. He had showed the courage of his convictions. The last line of Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” celebrates a courageous physician in a Norwegian village who revealed the secret of the town’s contaminated spas: “The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”

Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management