Gut Check: Should Business Leaders Be Apolitical?

Vince Molinaro, Ph.D. Blog

Politics and business make for strange bedfellows. Or so I thought.

Several years ago, I was working with a company in the healthcare industry. It was lobbying government to pass legislation that would help them sell a particular drug in an emerging therapeutic class.

At the same time a national election was also taking place. On election day, the CEO sent a strongly worded email to all his employees suggesting they vote for one particular party. The CEO knew this party supported the legislation that would help his company, and wanted to make sure all his employees understood the stakes.

I have thought a lot about the actions of that CEO. Was mixing politics and his company’s business a good idea? Should he have used his positional power to influence the voting behavior of employees?

Most of the executives I’ve worked with closely believe business leaders need to be apolitical. However, I’ve seen evidence that this might be changing. More and more leaders are actively involved on the front lines of politics. Leaders like Reid Hoffman, who is one of the most respected entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

He is a co-founder of LinkedIn and was on the ground floor as an investor in Facebook and Airbnb. More recently, however, Hoffman has become famous for picking a public fight with Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Hoffman has publicly criticized Trump. Earlier in September, he offered $5 million to support a crowd-sourcing campaign organized by a Marine Corps veteran who is trying to get Trump to release his tax returns. The campaign is crowdfunding $1 million for veterans’ support groups, a sum that Hoffman agreed to quintuple if Trump relents.

That was not, however, Hoffman’s only foray into this election. He also released a card game, “Trumped Up Cards: The World’s Biggest Deck,” that mocks Trump for his business and personal indiscretions. Why would a man as successful as Hoffman step out of the backrooms of Silicon Valley to lock horns with a political candidate?

Hoffman is by no means alone in speaking out during this campaign.

In July, 140 top technology entrepreneurs, engineers and executives released an open letter criticizing Trump for various policies they felt would be bad for their industry. Signatories to the letter included Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, Steve Wozniak, one of the original Apple co-founders, and David Karp, founder and CEO of Tumblr.

“We stand against Donald Trump’s divisive candidacy and want a candidate who embraces the ideals that built America’s technology industry: freedom of expression, openness to newcomers, equality of opportunity, public investments in research and infrastructure, and respect for the rule of law. We embrace an optimistic vision for a more inclusive country, where American innovation continues to fuel opportunity, prosperity and leadership.”

While many of these business leaders have actively shown their disapproval for Trump, many others have actively endorsed Hillary Clinton.

Business leaders have always had some hand in politics, either as advisors, fundraisers or donors. But for the most part, they have left the campaigning to the politicians, preferring to stay in the back rooms. Now, it seems like more and more business leaders are stepping up to be at the forefront of political debate.

Is this a good thing?

I have written a lot about this evolving trend in the past. Leaders are expected to react in real time to current events, and stake out positions on important social issues. Business leaders are now going beyond speaking out on social issues, and entering into the fray of politics.

If this is the changing reality of leadership, then I believe business leaders need to be cautious.

Carol Roth, a regular contributor to Entrepreneur Magazine has also written about this and shares some really good ideas for business leaders to consider. She believes business leaders need to be thoughtful about voicing their political thoughts and opinions. There can be risks.

The bottom line? Business leaders cannot escape the debate on social issues. Your employees and your customers want to know the values of leaders and where they stand on important social issues. Increasingly, we know that customers are making their purchasing decisions based on the values of the company trying to sell them goods and services.

However, while taking a stand on a social issue does have political implications, it may be much riskier to start promoting individual candidates or parties. It’s a very fine line – being socially aware and active while staying clear of partisan politics.

What are your perspectives on this important leadership issue? I would love to know your thoughts and perspectives.

This week’s gut check asks: should business leaders be apolitical?

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