Leaders Should Seize Leadership Opportunities

Last month’s changes to Georgia’s voting laws — making it tougher for citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote — caused a (well deserved) outcry, including from corporate leaders. But what seemed to amplify and even protract the attention was Senator Mitch McConnell’s ensuant admonition of CEOS to “stay out of politics.”

The backlash came fast and furious. It ran the gamut of calling McConnell a hypocrite to justifying the need for corporations to fill governmental voids in upholding our democracy.

Since I regularly address CEOs and corporate leadership, I thought I’d throw my $0.02 into the conversation. Not because I want to get involved in a partisan debate, but because, as I elaborate below, this is one of those leadership opportunities that I feel passionately about and view as too important not to be discussed.

CEOs, to you I say, with vigor: Yes, you should definitely continue to speak up and speak out. It’s the right thing to do for society, and when done with due consideration, it’s the right thing to do for your business too. Speaking up also presents good follow-up opportunities for engagement with stakeholders.

But remember…

The CEO platform comes with a certain cachet, which, like everything else, is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Greater scarcity = greater value. If you speak out on all topics, your voice no longer has the same impact.

Under what conditions should you speak up?

I’d say when it’s really important. And for that, I suggest two criteria:

  1. The issue is a crucial one for society that you and your stakeholders care about. This could be anything from voting rights to marriage equality to racial justice. In such circumstances, use your bully pulpit. It’s the right thing for you to do.
  2. The issue intersects with your business and the societal commitments you’ve made. Say, for example, you’ve made an ambitious climate commitment. In this case, you’ve earned the right to speak up. And doing so can lead to positive outcomes for society and for your business. You can energize your stakeholders (including investors, employees, and customers), contribute to societal progress, and likely learn things that will make you even better.

Let’s look at it from the other angle.

Is refraining from speaking up always the safer option?

Not anymore. Not speaking up on issues that meet these criteria — i.e., when you’re on the record with strong views — undermines your credibility and ultimately your standing.

Still worried about the possible ramifications of speaking up? Here are 3 reasons not to be:

  1. It’s okay if some political leaders disagree with you and/or wish you’d remain silent. That doesn’t mean you should stay out of politics. At the end of the day, everything can be construed as political. But you know the importance of the issues you’re speaking to and why. Also, when there is pushback, it usually ends up serving you by giving your comments greater profile.
  2. But you don’t have to be partisan. In fact, you should try not to be. Speak to the issues, not to party stances. There’s no need to pick a side of the aisle when articulating carefully considered and fundamentally held beliefs. It only buries the substance of your views. The partisan tribal thing has gone too far.
  3. Your stakeholders want you to speak up. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: your stakeholders want you to speak up on issues your company cares about and has committed to. They are getting more vocal about it, and they demand consistency. Plus, speaking up leads to productive dialogue with more stakeholders, and even critics. That’s good. Everyone can learn and end up better off.

Of course, speaking up alone will not suffice. It needs to be backed up with action. I’ll end with an anecdote from a few years back.

President Trump had only just taken office when he issued a travel ban on Muslims. I heard the news while I was switching planes in the Raleigh airport. Immediately I called my office at TNC and learned that some of our colleagues were freaking out, understandably so. At TNC, we had clearly articulated values, one of which was, of course, not to discriminate by race and religion. Additionally, TNC is a global organization. A number of our team members were directly affected.

This clearly met my criteria for importance.

We hurried and put out a statement before my connecting flight took off. We denounced the order and committed to doing everything we could to support any employee or family member that was impacted.

It mostly had the intended effect. The TNC team took comfort in the strong statement made in their name and the action that backed it up.

But, I didn’t handle the matter in the best way in all respects. My statement inadvertently gave the impression to some stakeholders — especially some of our supporters in red states — that I was taking a partisan stand against the President. These stakeholders were angry with me. They thought I was breaking with our policy of being a non-partisan organization. It’s true that I was personally opposed to most of Trump’s initiatives, including this one. But that wasn’t the point I was trying to make. I was speaking on behalf of the organization about one of our strongly held values. I should have made that clearer.

My misstep was not the end of the world. It led to dialogue between the upset folks and me. I explained that I was trying to stand up for a value I personally held but, more importantly, was a priority for TNC. I also tried my best to listen carefully to them. They felt heard. I learned that I needed to communicate more carefully on matters like this. And we all got to know one another better.

When I reflect back on my CEO tenure, that decision definitely resides on the positive side of the ledger. And if you speak out on issues of fundamental importance, I trust yours will too.

One of my primary motivations in starting this newsletter was my view that, to make major progress on very important societal issues like climate, we’re going to need CEOs to get on board and maybe even drive the train. Looking ahead, I am encouraged by the movement I see as more and more corporations make bold climate commitments. I hope to see CEOs getting more vocal about it too.

Former CEO of The Nature Conservancy CEO. “Nature’s Fortune” author. Family man, yogi, ice climber, vegan.

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