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Faculty Viewpoints

When Should CEOs Speak Out?

Many corporate leaders are overcoming their hesitancy about wading into divisive social issues, addressing subjects like voting rights, election integrity, racial justice, immigration, and gun violence. Prof. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld offers some guidelines for when and how business leaders should weigh in.

A black megaphone labeled "CEO" in gold
  • Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
    Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

This commentary originally appeared in Chief Executive.

Some 2,500 years ago, the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu offered advice on winning a fight that remains relevant in business today: “Choose your battles wisely.” But at a time when today’s business leaders are being called upon to address a dizzying array of divisive societal issues, that’s easier said than done.

According to a recent Edelman Trust Barometer survey of 17,000 people in 14 countries, business leaders tower over other figures in society as sources of public trust. Majorities in every country reported urgent social problems would not be solved without business involvement. Workers expected their employers to take action on pressing societal problems ranging from vaccine hesitancy (84 percent), climate change (81 percent), automation (79 percent), the “infodemic” (79 percent) and racism (79 percent).

CEOs, too, are urging their peers to be more proactive. Merck CEO Ken Frazier has encouraged private corporations to help “stabilize society” amid rising economic inequity and racial injustice. He stated, “It’s really critically important for us to not only think about what’s good for our individual businesses but what’s also good for the societies in which our businesses operate.”

    The responsibility can, however, feel daunting. Voting access, immigration, safe workplaces, sustainability, gun safety, gender equality, privacy, product safety, skill retraining—are all of these societal concerns equally critical? How do you address controversial issues while remaining sensitive to the varying viewpoints among your different constituencies?

      Prof. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld's first rule for business leaders: “Act in the national interest. The collective voice of CEOs provides them protection from political reprisals and adds force.”

      These guidelines can help CEOs address an emerging leadership imperative—knowing when to weigh in and how best to go about it:

      1. Act in the national interest. Business leaders supported every war in our nation’s history. Last year, CEOs took on major issues regarding immigration, racial justice, election security, and voting access. As Michael Dell commented, “If CEOs can’t speak out on voting access, what can they address?” The collective voice of CEOs provides them protection from political reprisals and adds force.
      2. Seek board guidance. As shareholder activist Nell Minow advised, “It is time for every board of directors to develop new policies on how corporate money and messaging decisions are made on political issues. Like almost every other answer on corporate strategy, these decisions rest on corporate identity, or branding…. Corporate reputation is of increasing importance, particularly to millennials and the generation that follows, a priority not just as consumers but as employees and investors. The fastest-growing category of investment is ESG, with every major financial institution and every significant institutional investor having one or more ESG options.”
      3. Examine the enterprise’s strategic needs. Management teams must study specific business impacts, as when U.S. auto and energy company CEOs challenged the Trump administration regulatory rollbacks that undermined the EPA while jeopardizing progress on global clean air standards.
      4. Choose areas that fortify your brand and culture. Nike famously leveraged the controversy over banned NFL player Colin Kaepernick to bolster its slogan by featuring the former football player in an ad campaign with the tagline: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just Do It.”
      5. Model your values. Before Merck CEO Ken Frazier triggered a mass walkout from President Trump’s Business Advisory Council, he first alerted his board. Frazier took care to note that he was acting on his own principles and not compelling them to agree—but they did.
      Department: Faculty Viewpoints