In my role at Fast Company, I’m responsible for reviewing hundreds of articles a month. These are a few draft headlines that have landed in my inbox over the past year:
Developing Employee Relationships Is The First Step In Chasing Elusive Employee Engagement
Bring Honor And Accountability Back To The Workforce To Get Results
Why Internal Communications Are Essential To Your Corporate Culture
The reason I chose not publish each of these stories was the same: Their underlying ideas were boring, obvious, or inert–they didn’t lead to any sort of action, or explain why to take it.
Who would argue that good relationships have no bearing on employee engagement? Does anyone believe workforces without “honor” or “accountability” (which vanished when, exactly?) can still “get results”? Or that good internal communication is a pernicious evil that will devour a company’s culture from the inside out if it isn’t stopped?
Having a point matters; it’s the whole point of sharing your ideas in print, whether you’re writing an op-ed or talking to a reporter. Ideally, that point will be surprising or novel. Maybe it will even be provocative, something that somebody else could conceivably–and compellingly–argue the reverse of. Above all, it will lead people to do something differently, to exit the realm of thought and enter the realm of action.
Especially now. In a world where “alternative” realities jockey incessantly for dominance, confusion spreads and paralysis sets in. It’s up to leaders to reverse that, by clarifying where they stand and what they stand for–then explaining what to do about it.
It used to be considered needlessly “political” for business heads to weigh in on current events, and it’s true that the risks of doing so remain high. But that’s now part of the job. Fall short of it, and you leave your customers, employees, and the public in the lurch–unable to make choices (both as consumers and members of the workforce) that impact your business’s fate much more profoundly than any veneer of neutrality can protect it.
It’s never been clearer that what companies do affects more than what they sell or how well they sell it. Businesses have always been scrutinized for their labor records, employment and hiring practices, social impact, and overall sense of purpose. But as the federal government executes a sharp turn away from progressive social policies, large swaths of the country are watching to see whether the private sector picks up that banner or runs from it. Execs may not think that’s fair, but they can’t avoid reckoning with it.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has long traded jabs with Donald Trump, but this week he pushed back against the recent executive order blocking U.S. entry to refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. “No nation is better at harnessing the energies and talents of immigrants. It’s a distinctive competitive advantage for our country—one we should not weaken,” Bezos wrote in a memo announcing that the company is considering legal action to protect that advantage, or at least its own. “To our employees in the U.S. and around the world who may be directly affected by this order, I want you to know that the full extent of Amazon’s resources are behind you.”
The pressure to take a position isn’t just on left-leaning companies. Earlier this month, L.L. Bean heiress Linda Bean went on Fox & Friends to condemn boycotters of the clothing brand after revelations that she’d donated $60,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC. Her stance was helpful to know: L.L. Bean would be staying the course (“I never back down if I feel I’m right,” Bean averred).
Consumers, current employees, and prospective hires of the company now knew where one of its leaders stood with regard to Trump’s proposals. By stating her case and laying out her intentions, Bean, like Bezos, was offering clarity to people looking for it–about something much more important than rainproof outerwear or same-day delivery.
Shortly after the election, I received a draft of a story by an exec at a major company advocating for private-sector support for community service programs–not an especially incendiary idea. But when I suggested the author acknowledge that the political climate might spur people to get involved in such service, the company’s PR team got cold feet. We had to kill the piece.
Here’s the thing: The exec who’d written that story clearly supported this idea before Trump was elected president. Likewise, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz didn’t arrive at the conviction that immigrants give U.S. employers a competitive edge just a few days ago. It was this firmly held belief that led him to vow this week to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years. Similarly, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has vocally supported women’s reproductive rights well before she sharply criticized Trump’s recent renewal of a Reagan-administration ban on health care providers from advertising abortion counseling options, and she continues to speak out about what she believes in.
These leaders’ opinions haven’t changed all of a sudden. The political climate has, in ways that forced them to speak out. What that means is that the people who look to Shultz and Sandberg for leadership, and in many cases for their livelihoods, now rely on them to defend these views–not just in thought but in deed. A Facebook employee with foreign citizenship who’s facing deportation needs to know whether the company has her back. A Starbucks drinker who wants to see U.S. borders tighten should know whether to consider getting caffeine boosts elsewhere.
So it’s no longer enough for leaders like Ford CEO Mark Fields–who just weeks ago was spouting tepid support for the Trump team’s “pro-growth” strategies, in a bid to avoid being tweeted to death–to declare that “all of our policies, including our human-resource policies, support a diverse and inclusive workplace,” referring to the immigration ban.
What company would ever say otherwise? Ford’s employees and customers deserve to hear what Fields thinks should be done about it. His bland avowal–“We are going to stay focused on the well-being of our employees and running a successful business”–just doesn’t measure up.
“Thought leadership” is a wretched name for work that’s often managed by PR agencies and teams of marketing experts. But when leaders really say what they think, it clears a space for action, not just thought. That space is where decisions get explained and justified, ideas aired, adjudicated, shot down, applauded, and reasoned out.
Stay on its margins or flood it with platitudes, and people will make their own assumptions. What they’ll likely assume is that you’re fine with the status quo. They’ll grasp that your business’s main purpose is profit–that its leaders don’t see any need to act differently because they’re making money just fine.
But even this choice is worth explaining and defending. Issuing milquetoast or disingenuous comments–or none at all–is an abdication of leadership. Choosing not to say what you think still reveals what you value.