Tue. May 24th, 2022


The author is co-author of ‘Net Positive’ and former CEO of Unilever

Expectations of business leaders have changed dramatically. When I was a young CEO, the general manager was expected to deliver bigger profits, happier shareholders and more jobs. Today, staff and customers believe you need to embody the company’s values ​​and speak out on major testing issues, from race to hoax and climate change.

As Larry Fink, CEO of asset manager BlackRock, put it in his annual letter last week: “We do not focus on sustainability because we are environmentally conscious, but because we are capitalists and trust for our customers.”

In difficult times, a more morally conscious business elite should surely be a good thing. We live in a historic moment of multiple and converging global challenges and our governments and multilateral institutions have been squeezed.

However, not everyone agrees. Traditionalists have long argued that the focus on sustainability is too often at the expense of running a good business, as we in some of the debate to my old company Unilever last week. Criticism is also increasingly coming from the political sphere, where parts of the establishment now shout “wake capitalism” every time “activist CEOs” open their mouths.

In the US, the accusation of vigilance among some in the Republican Party is being withdrawn in response to two-party coalitions of Fortune 500 CEOs who are helping to block anti-gay and anti-LGBT legislation, and are campaigning for the US in Paris. climate agreement and now companies from Amazon to General Motors that publicly oppose efforts by state lawmakers to restrict voters’ rights.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell could not have been clearer: “My warning to corporate America is to stay out of politics.” He quickly explained: ‘I’m not talking about political contributions. It turns out states are bad, but cash is good.

This is a crude tactic: put CEOs back in their box when you do not like what they have to say. And it’s dangerous. Many business leaders still find this difficult area. The fact that more is being moved through the times to get off the sidelines is to be welcomed. Politicizing this shift is anti-democratic and will stifle economic growth.

For a healthy democracy, it is much better for our corporate leaders to openly set up their stalls than to quietly bank politicians, trade associations and media institutions to make their bid for them. I happen to agree with Virgin’s Richard Branson when he writes off the death penalty as punitive and racist (or Salesforce’s Marc Benioff when he offers to relocate staff in search of Texas’ regressive new abortion law). I admire IBM’s former CEO Ginni Rometty and Merck’s Ken Frazier for tackling the systemic barriers faced by black employees without university degrees. I, on the other hand, find it disappointing to hear some pharmaceutical executives defend their decision to withhold life-saving vaccine patents from emerging markets. But I still prefer that they make their case public.

Economically, evidence is accumulating to demonstrate the financial benefits for companies that apply their principles consistently and actively work to solve social problems. Silencing CEOs who embody this approach undermines styles of corporate leadership and culture that we should rather try to promote.

This is not to say that all corporate statements should be believed. Following the deadly attack on the US capital on January 6 last year, hundreds of companies have promised to withdraw funding from Republican lawmakers who have promised to reverse the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Many big names including Disney, Mastercard and Nike kept their word but others did not. We saw a similar gap between words and deeds after the assassination of George Floyd in May 2020. Such inconsistency plays directly into the hands of those who want to discredit corporate activism.

But the answer is not to let the plains become the enemy of the upright. From reviving our pandemic-ridden economies to urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions, getting life-saving Covid vaccines to poorer nations and bridging the race, gender and wealth divisions that are tearing our societies apart, business has a great role and a great responsibility. Our democracies are faltering in the midst of a wave of misinformation, while the waves of populism and extremism show no sign of retreat.

So let’s not take down those drivers who are really ready to take a stand. Most of them did not aim to become community leaders, but that is the responsibility given to them over time. This is a moment that calls for more leadership, not less.



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