Three days after the US election, while the media had not yet declared a winner, two dozen CEOs of Fortune 500 companies gathered online to hear a lecture by an expert on tyranny and discuss what to do if US president Donald Trump were to discredit the election and resist a peaceful transition of power. By the time the Associated Press reported the confidential meeting a week later, the defeated president had yet to concede and the attendees had stuck to their resolution: Let the antics and litigations play out and intervene only if it became absolutely necessary.
The conclave captures a dilemma that senior executives—and management authors—have faced more frequently while the first “CEO president” occupied the oval office. How political should management be? Trump’s demeanor has pushed business leaders to speak up more on social issues. It also has made it treacherous for them to take a stance and risk a controversy that might damage their company’s brand. But the dilemma predates Trump, and it won’t disappear in 2021.
On the one hand, management has never been so politicized. Executives now routinely make statements about purpose, values, and responsibility; denounce racism and climate change; pledge to cultivate inclusive communities. These claims are meant to reassure us that business leaders are eager to use their power for the greater good. On the other hand, politics often remains a dirty word in business, something best kept, when possible, behind closed doors.
“Are managers the new politicians?” I was asked at a recent gathering of executives and academics on the perils of leading in polarized societies. They are not. Managers have always dealt with politics. Dealing with power struggles and orchestrating strategic debates within the organization is part and parcel of their work. So is staying attuned to local and national politics around their organization. Today, the most political of their managerial duties—the work that has become more visible in the age of corporate social responsibility, digital transparency, and CEO activism—is handling the intersection between those two.
Management is political even when it bans politics at work, as Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong did recently. After decreeing his stance via blog post, Armstrong offered a severance package to those who disagreed. The kind of employee activism that is now common in Silicon Valley, he explained in bold typeface, had “the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division.”
Statements like Armstrong’s are old management politics. “We want to use cryptocurrency to bring economic freedom to people all over the world,” he wrote. Focusing on that mission, he argued, was the best way to improve lives. To reinforce his plea for an “intense” yet “apolitical” culture, Armstrong drew on another management trope: professional sports. “Play as a championship team,” the CEO urged employees, decorating his mandate with a picture of the 1990s Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan stood at the center, a gum-guard poking through his grin.
The reluctant politicians
Anyone invoking Michael Jordan to make the point that focusing on the business is the best way to champion social progress should watch The Last Dance, the Netflix documentary on Jordan’s legendary career. The 10 episodes set out to celebrate what Jordan did on the court and what he meant to people—in both cases, a great deal. He was more than a celebrity athlete. He was an icon, a hero, a role model. He was, in one word, a leader. But he also was a salesman, which seemed to conflict with any inclination he might have had to be political.
Consider what happened in 1990. Somewhat shockingly, Jordan refused to endorse Harvey Gantt, a Black Democrat in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina who was challenging incumbent Jesse Helms, a white Republican and open segregationist, for a US Senate seat. “Republicans buy sneakers too,” Jordan quipped controversially. The documentary brings in a Bulls fan, amateur basketball player, and Chicago community organizer to offer a rebuke and an explanation. “Knowing what Jesse Helms stood for, you would have wanted to see Michael push harder on that,” former US president Barack Obama says on screen. “On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out, ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me, and how do I live up to it?’”
There is little room to maneuver, Obama reminds viewers, when you are a minority on so high a pedestal. That is vintage Obama, dropping sophisticated social commentary tinged with autobiography. But maybe all that Jordan cared about, as The Last Dance shows, was to win and earn people’s respect on the court. Why ask him for more than that?
Three decades later, basketball has changed. NBA players were a potent force in turning out the vote for the 2020 US election. Shortly after the presidential race was called, LeBron James tweeted a photo of his famous block, a key play of the 2016 NBA finals turned popular social media meme. Joe Biden’s face was photoshopped over James’, and Trump’s over his opponent’s. In James, there is no trace of the dilemma that Obama saw reflected in Jordan. Corporate leaders, meanwhile, keep struggling with the Jordan-like instinct to mind their business while figuring out how to live up to a new image. If the ambition to drive social progress while staying away from politics could barely pass as pragmatism for Jordan in 1990, however, it is harder not to regard it as opportunism for corporate CEOs in 2020.
Once a company makes bold claims to be “a community,” to have a “social mission,” and to make “a positive difference” in the world, it becomes impossible to take the prudent stance that management should engage with local politics, or with global issues like social justice or climate change, only when there is a business case for doing so. Executives who want no discord in their communities about whether, how, and for whom their business improves lives are not apolitical. They are just undemocratic—or, more precisely, leaderist. They encourage broad participation, sure, but if the outcome is not up to their standards, that’s when they suddenly step in and take charge.
Leaderism takes silence as an endorsement—which is highly convenient given how infrequently it is challenged. But the time when it was possible to pretend that management was not engaged in politics within and around their organizations, only because that work was seldom made public, is gone.
The right question for managers to be asking
Instead of agonizing over whether to intervene, executives would be better off accepting that they will, because they inevitably do. The question is how to do it most constructively, for their organizations and also for society—and they should recognize that silence is an intervention, too. For management, the question is no longer how political to be. It is how to be political well. That is, how to engage people in setting and advancing a purpose, rather than just selling them one.
In that respect, lobbying, condemning, or endorsing politicians is neither necessary nor enough. Nor is being able to hold an informed stance. Managers must invite debate on that stance. They need to be able to dig into the big questions about their products and purpose, such as: What kind of society are you trying to build within and outside your company? What makes it worth building? Who wins and who loses in it? Whose voice is amplified? Who gets silenced?
For business to be taken seriously as a champion of social stability and progress, managers and management thinkers must be able to stand up to the same kind of scrutiny as politicians and public intellectuals. It might sound strange to compare Steve Jobs and Indra Nooyi with Ronald Reagan and Angela Merkel, Roger Martin, and Rosabeth Moss Kanter to Richard Dawkins and Simone de Beauvoir. But managers, and those who study them, have always been political players and part of the commentariat. What is new is that they are finally being outed as such, to us and even to themselves.