With midterm elections next week and our country in extremely choppy waters, it’s understandable that CEOs want to avoid what could be seen as “divisive.” To me, a vivid example – only eight of the Fortune 500 companies have pledged to stop donating to politicians who object to certifying the valid results of the 2020 presidential election. Another is how Disney navigates their stance on the governor. After hearing from employees, DeSantis introduced the “Don’t Say Homosexual” bill.
Today’s political and cultural environment can be a challenging environment for business leaders. However, everyone has a role to play in addressing these issues. Given their enormous power and influence, Business leaders in particular need to lead on values, plan ahead for risks, and lead by example.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, leaders across the business world have moved quickly. It feels like we are on the cusp of transformational change.
And then the backlash came, just like when the country made racial progress.
Of course, we are not the only generation to experience headwinds, but these threats to our economy, democracy and civil society are real. These issues must be confronted head-on if we continue to lead the world as beacons of freedom and prosperity. We must also continue to consider the key truth behind many of the problems we face today: Our social and economic system continues to benefit white people, not just all other non-white populations in our country.
So where are we now? Among philanthropists, I have never seen such a focus on issues of race and equity more broadly. A wider range of foundations and wealthy individual donors have begun researching strategies and practices to support equity-focused work in the field. On the corporate side, many outstanding business leaders are committed to doing better—not just creating a more diverse workforce, but creating a culture of inclusion and devoting resources to help create more opportunities in communities of color . While we are currently experiencing a highly coordinated rally, significant progress is being made.
After a difficult pandemic year, employees rightfully demand more from their companies when it comes to improving pay and benefits, accessing key rights like reproductive health care, and consistently living the values they espouse.
For business leaders, deciding whether and how to engage in political or cultural battles often feels like a win-win situation, especially in these polarized and reactionary times. It is impossible to draw lines that satisfy every constituency. But the reality is that we can no longer isolate what happens outside the company because our democracy is in a volatile place. No matter how “good” the employer is – how rich the benefits package, how inclusive the culture – if our wider society fails to provide opportunities for the majority of us, that failure will also manifest in the workplace . In short, the people whose rights are being challenged right now are our customers, employees, neighbors and families, and they need people with power to stand up for them. At first glance, getting involved may seem “bad for business,” but in the long run, staying silent is worse.
Because the stories we are told – that we are irreversibly polarized – are invalid.
Even though we may not have the perfect playbook in front of us, businesses can work to repair the past damage our organizations have done. We can build teams that represent the full range of our country. We can create inclusive, equitable environments where people can be who they are and feel a sense of belonging. We can be good corporate citizens in our community. We can think holistically about the threats to our democracy and what they mean for our work. We can directly discuss the importance of our democratic values with each other, employees and customers, and together we can uphold them.
When so many Americans are divided, we need to act as bridges — helping to build trust, communication, and a shared sense of community among people. Building a bridge doesn’t mean trying to be bipartisan or beyond fighting — it means reminding our audience during these difficult times that inclusion and fairness are fundamental American values, supported by the overwhelming majority of our nation. By defending our shared values at this time, we can help America emerge from this disruptive period in our history and put us back on the road to success. I’m not saying it’s easy or that there won’t be short-term losses, but the stakes are too high for any of us with social influence to sit idly by.
It is good for people to lead with shared values. This is good for the economy. We need to be willing to fight for them with everything we have.