CEO Activism — When Leaders Should Speak Out


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Recent events have brought more attention to whether CEOs should speak up on social issues or political decisions since this may adversely impact their business. The struggle has existed for leaders of every generation in the past and will exist for leaders in the future.  

In the fall of 2018, Alison Taylor, the managing director at BSR, a collective advising companies on sustainability issues, wrote in Harvard Business Review that “CEO activism, the growing trend of top executives speaking out on sensitive social and political issues, has been labeled the ‘new normal.’ But behind the scenes, executives do not feel in control. They are struggling to anticipate and respond to intensifying pressure from the public, investors and — above all — their employees.” 

In partnership with KRC Research, public relations firm Weber Shandwick released CEO Activism in 2018: The Purposeful CEO, which highlights the role of the CEO and trends related to using their business platform to highlight thoughts on social issues. Here are a few highlights from the report: 

  • Nearly eight in 10 consumers (77%) agree that CEOs need to speak out when their company’s values are violated or threatened.
  • CEO activism positively influences purchasing decisions. Nearly half of consumers (46%) would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue they agree with.
  • The top issues people want CEOs to address: training, equal pay and sexual harassment. Bottom of the list: gun control, nationalism, marijuana legalization and abortion.
  • 31% of employed Americans say they would be more loyal to their organization if their CEO took a public position on a hotly debated issue and nearly the same percentage (29%) say it would not matter to them. Fewer (23%) would be less loyal.

Related: 7 Ways to Shatter Your Own Glass Ceiling

When the voice of a CEO is essential

Every leader should make it a priority to communicate more. This communication should include both internal and external communications. There’s an old proverb that says “True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and led many.”

The words of the leader should be:

1. Words that are given to them by their convictions

Authentic principles are good principles. When a leader speaks words of wisdom, they can be assured those words are suitable for any time and situation.  Leaders are wise when they study truth and learn how to apply it to everyday life and circumstances, including business.  

When a leader sees something that goes against what is right and just, the leader must become a spokesperson for what is right and just. When a leader discovers the truth of what is right, it will lead to the conviction that they must share this truth with others. Convictions will often lead to conversations. 

2. Words that have been proven true and correct

Because the words of a leader are important, what they speak should be true and correct. It is not wise for a leader to dwell on rumors, vague concepts or statements that can be proven wrong. It is not good enough for a leader to almost get it right. The leader must be exact in their words and speech. Author Mark Twain encouraged the idea of exactness in speech when he penned the words, “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” 

The leader’s words should always point to something. When a leader speaks, the listener should be filled with insight and wisdom. Too many leaders spend too much time talking without saying anything that will change those who listen. Business leaders who speak intentionally will discover that their words contain more value.  

3. Words that bring about peace and right behaviors

CEOs have the power to influence through their words, so they should consider their words carefully. When the CEO speaks the truth, it will build trust and confidence.  

In comments about the Edelman Trust Barometer, which annually measures public confidence in business, government and other institutions, CEO and President Richard Edelman wrote: “There are new expectations of corporate leaders. Nearly 7 in 10 respondents say that building trust is the No. 1 job for CEOs, ahead of high-quality products and services. Nearly two-thirds say they want CEOs to take the lead on policy change instead of waiting for government, which now ranks significantly below business in trust in most markets. This is the time for business to address the wage stagnation of the working class over the past two decades while acknowledging the need to retrain employees who are about to be replaced by automation.” 

Many leaders enjoy the fact that their words often stir action. However, a wise leader will consider if that action is the right action. An employee who can trust the leader’s words will often outperform an employee who is constantly acting in response to the latest erratic, emotion-laden statement of a leader. 

Related: Consumers Demand a Stance on Social and Political Issues. Are You Ready to Speak Out?

4. Words that show others wisdom 

In his book, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, magazine writer and author Derek Thompson says that “all of my favorite books perform this trick. Initially, they seem to immerse me in another life, but ultimately they immerse me in me; I am looking through the window into another person’s home, but it is my face that I see in the reflection.” 

It is not the job of the leader to win arguments, but rather to win influence. The leader should never tire of communicating to others with grace and mercy that help to point another person into deeper thinking. The old proverb says “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” In times of crisis and difficulty, the leader’s voice is valuable. Leaders are called to speak with wisdom and insight.

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