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Three Questions

Three Questions: Prof. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld on CEOs Taking a Stand after Parkland

Outrage following the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, has led a number of businesses to distance themselves from the NRA. Should for-profit corporations be taking a stand on a hot-button political issue? Prof. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld argues that businesses need to not just respond but to lead.

  • Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
    Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

There have been many mass shootings in the U.S., and companies haven't broken with the NRA in the past. What's different this time? Are CEOS responding because of pressure or principle?

The horrific tragedy and innocent deaths in Parkland, Florida, will not be in vain. There were 345 mass shooting in 2017—the deadliest year to date for mass shootings. With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has one-third of the world’s mass shootings, a rate 25 times that of other affluent nations. Young people are acting like adults, seizing the moment of moral outrage. As with the #MeToo movement, the sentiment has gone viral—from kids and their parents to teachers, neighbors, media, stores, boardrooms, and corner offices. With more than 97% of the nation demanding better gun safety, and almost 70% favoring a ban on military assault weapons, these are not risky positions. This nation, with the support of business, banned tommy guns in 1934 and assault weapons in the 1990s. What changed was the leadership of a more narrow, passive business community and a more ideologically charged NRA, which used to focus on gun safety. All that has now changed again. Those companies that take a stand need not fear backlash; rather, those that don’t should have such fear. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said, “Anyone who needs as AR-15 to hunt deer should go back to fishing!” 

What responsibility do CEOs have in advocating for social change in the face of a crisis like this? How should they link about the fact that many customers and other stakeholders feel differently about the issue?
CEOs are chosen for competence and character, as well as for their courage. If shareholders are unhappy, they can sell their shares or replace the management. CEOs have responsibility beyond the bottom line to build and nourish the brand and purpose of the enterprise. This is important for corporate citizenship but also to be in sync with the values of owners, customers, employees, and communities. The public is looking to business leaders for moral leadership. According to the Edelman Trust Survey, the public looks to business leaders more than elected officials, the media, or even the clergy. The 1960s activist priest Reverend Philip Berrigan once said, “I more regret actions I have not taken over any actions that I have taken.”

Does acting on principles and ethics translate into better business?

Doing good is not antithetical to doing well. Quality products, the quality of work life, the quality of fair competition, and the quality of community impact need all be in alignment to build lasting value. Even economist Adam Smith allowed for the idea that shareholders can benefit from long-term investing. Enterprise industrialist George Weyerhaeuser told me 40 years ago, “Businesses have a license to operate from society and if they violate its terms, it will be revoked.

Department: Three Questions