Events across the U.S. and worldwide prove that 2018 was filled with object lessons in leadership.
We witnessed trailblazing legislators, executives, and even groups of young people push boundaries as they fought to advance social justice and give voice to the underrepresented. And as in other years, we also witnessed many leaders struggle amid controversy.
As always, a few leaders broke free from the pack on the merits of their accomplishments this year. Among them:
The best leaders of 2018
Sometimes it can feel like nothing but bad news day after day. It can be easy to overlook all the hopeful moments when brave people stood up for what they believed in, stood up for others, or defied the odds to step into uncharted territory. This year held a lot of such moments. Here are some of the most inspiring leaders that emerged in 2018.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The 28-year-old community organizer from the Bronx pulled off a heroic win against the incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley (D-NY). To accomplish this, despite the massive lack of campaign funding (Ocasio-Cortez raised $200,000 compared to Crowley’s $3 million), the member of the Democratic Socialists spent time pounding the pavement (as evidenced by a photo she took of the holes worn through her sneakers) to discuss her progressive platform, which includes calling to abolish ICE, criminal justice reform, a federal jobs guarantee, and Medicare for all. And let’s not forget how much criticism she’s deflected from all sides, with temerity and grace, and well-timed doses of humor.
Fourteen women, people of color, and LGBT candidates also had historic wins during the midterm elections. Here are just a few who broke political barriers across the country: Rashida Harbi Tlaib is a Palestinian-American politician and attorney who became the first Muslim congresswoman. She’s planning to upend a decades-long practice to lead a congressional delegation to Israel by taking them to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Colorado’s Jared Polis became the nation’s first openly gay governor. New Mexico’s Deb Haaland of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe is the first Native American woman to represent her state as a U.S. representative. Republican Kristi Noem is South Dakota’s first female governor. Letitia James is the first woman elected to be the New York attorney general and the first African-American woman to be elected to any statewide office in New York.
CEO Beth Ford became the first openly gay female CEO of a Fortune 500 company when she took the helm of Land O’Lakes this past August. Under her leadership, Land O’Lakes ran its “All Together Better” campaign to celebrate female farmers ahead of Women’s Equality Day on August 26. The song, “She-I-O” and its accompanying video featured female farmers in the Land O’Lakes’s cooperative. The company also partnered with hunger relief organization Feeding America to donate $1 for every like, share, or comment on the video or music track across social media, SoundCloud, and iTunes, up to $100,000.
After two African-American men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks after they were racially profiled by a white manager, the coffee giant’s CEO Kevin Johnson responded to the public’s outrage, calling the incident “reprehensible” and closing all 8,000 locations in order to give employees bias training. Some employees and customers were skeptical that a training marathon would be enough to sustainably change workers’ implicit biases. The award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson, who created an eight-minute video called Access to Public Spaces in America for the training, was also skeptical. However, he did say, “They got a conversation going, and maybe that’s the best they can do. It won’t change the world, but if it got anybody thinking, ‘Wow, there are these different lives that we each are leading,’ then that’s something.”
Gucci’s CEO Marco Bizzarri took a stand to get the employees of the luxury brand to be more inclusive. This was a challenging task, because the fashion industry has deep racist and elitist roots, and also because the company employs around 13,000, and about 60,000 work indirectly with the brand. Gucci recently partnered with Dapper Dan, an African-American tailor from New York, to bring more black voices into fashion. But Bizzarri said earlier this year that he needs to reiterate this message constantly. “If people enter our shop, they enter our house, and we need to be hosts to them. Changing people’s mentalities and behavior, that is the most difficult thing to do. The approach should be welcoming and smiling in a genuine way that is not forced, because this is the way to be inclusive in the end.”
Champions for women and underrepresented minorities
In January, the nation watched as 156 young women and girls, including gymnastics stars and members of the 2012 Olympics team, shared their heart-wrenching stories of sexual abuse from former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina made history when she opened the courtroom to any victim of Nassar’s to share their story. But the historic trial wouldn’t have taken place if it wasn’t for the extraordinary bravery of lawyer and former gymnast Rachael Denhollander–the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual assault, and to file the initial lawsuit. Aquilina sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison. Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated awarded Denhollander their Inspiration of the Year award.
Kalpana Kotagal joined forces with Stacy Smith from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, and Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni of Pearl Street Films, who had been working for a few years around the idea of an inclusion rider. The rider had a moment in the spotlight when Frances McDormand added those words to the end of her acceptance speech at the 90th annual Academy Awards this year. It focuses on one person’s star power to negotiate for more diverse and inclusive hiring, both in the cast and on the crew of a production.
After some 20,000 Google employees walked out of work to demand that the company create real change in dealing with workers’ rights issues such as sexual harassment and gender and racial discrimination, one of its engineers took bolder action. Liz Fong-Jones started a strike fund (giving $100,00 of her own money) in anticipation of a much longer walkout following reports that a group of Google managers pushed through a project to build a censored search engine for China by ignoring the company’s usually rigorous privacy review process.
Taking a stand for a cause
This year wasn’t the first time Patagonia has taken a stand, but it was a significant move. Environmental activism has seen the outdoor retailer create 1% for the Planet initiative, giving a percentage of profits to grassroots environmental organizations, in addition to encouraging political action by becoming one of the first commercial brands to publicly endorse political candidates (and giving employees election day off). Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario is pledging to give back $10 million in tax cuts to grassroots environmental organizations. “Based on last year’s irresponsible tax cut, Patagonia will owe less in taxes this year. We are responding by putting $10 million back into the planet because our home needs it more than we do.”
Levi’s partnered with Patagonia on the “Time to Vote” campaign, which saw more than 200 companies follow suit by giving employees time off to cast their ballots. Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh also took the company’s stand on gun control one step further with the Safer Tomorrow Fund, which would put $1 million toward nonprofits and youth activists. Levi’s also partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety to bring together other business leaders against gun violence.
TOMS shoe company, known for its one-for-one giving model, has never taken a political stance. That changed in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, when TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie said the company would donate $5 million to nonprofits working to end gun violence (including Everytown for Gun Safety, Faith in Action, March for Our Lives, and Moms Demand Action). Mycoskie also pledged to use the company’s platform and social network to call on lawmakers to pass universal background checks, and permanently alter its giving model to prioritize issue-based efforts of this magnitude going forward.
Christine Blasey Ford came into the spotlight when she accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Despite receiving death threats and still fearing for her safety, Blasey Ford bravely (and with unimaginable poise and calm) testified in front of the nation in excruciating detail. Even though her testimony ultimately didn’t keep Brett Kavanaugh from being nominated to the Supreme Court, her bravery in performing her civic duty hopefully inspired generations of other women to speak up.
The worst leaders of 2018
Tipping the scales toward leadership that illustrated what not to do, these high-profile individuals missed opportunities to provide thoughtful vision and strategy to their companies.
A self-professed “impulsive” leader, Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk has drawn criticism and ire from staff, investors, and the public. In a year when the electric car manufacturer Tesla has come under scrutiny for its factory conditions, treatment of employees, and nearing bankruptcy to meet production demands, Musk has responded by calling investors names and tweeting snappish retorts. Another arm of the Musk empire, SolarCity, is being sued by former employees.
Facebook has been at the center of several media firestorms this year. We’ve witnessed CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggest that people can deny the Holocaust in good faith, get cozy with the Trump campaign, and refuse to remove toxic content. His appearance at the U.S. congressional hearings this summer may have provided a momentary boost to Facebook’s stock, however, a snapshot of his preparatory notes revealed that the chief of the social network he created may be idealizing its power for good while keeping an eye on the revenue prize (that would be seriously curtailed if government regulations were enforced). Among the notes: “Break Up FB? U.S. tech companies key asset for America; break up strengthens Chinese companies.”
COO Sheryl Sandberg is having her own moment of public scrutiny. Sandberg was slow to respond to suggestions that Russia has manipulated Facebook. And the New York Times reported that she asked Facebook’s communications staff to research George Soros’s financial interests after his high-profile attacks on tech companies.
While we see plenty of CEOs use their position to advance social causes, others say they have values, but continued to accept Saudi investments and not speak out after the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
CEOs Rao Mulpuri of View Inc. and Alex Garden of Zume Inc., both startups, have recently accepted a combined $1.5 billion in funding from SoftBank’s Vision Fund. The fund is backed by a $45 billion investment from the Saudi Arabian government. In response to critics, Softbank simply cited that it has a responsibility to the Saudi people for the investment.
Another CEO of Silicon Valley-based company, Michael Marks of Katerra Inc., just agreed to a tentative deal to build housing in Saudi Arabia. Adam Neumann, the CEO of WeWork, is reportedly in continued talks with SoftBank about investing $15 billion to $20 billion, to acquire a majority stake of the company.
Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos has also been silent on the matter. A statement from a Washington Post spokesperson to Fast Company said simply, “Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan and Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt are the two speaking on behalf of the company at this time.” We do know that Bezos was among a number of tech executives who met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he visited the United States in March, and that Amazon has reportedly been in talks to open data centers in Saudi Arabia, according to the Wall Street Journal.
This isn’t the only questionable leadership move (or lack thereof) from Bezos. Although the company did set its minimum wage at $15 per hour for all employees, workers at the recently acquired Whole Foods want to unionize, which Amazon is staunchly trying to discourage. Workers in Europe went on strike on Black Friday to demand better working conditions and wages, and to protest Amazon’s refusal to negotiate. It should also be noted that he is accepting tax breaks and other subsidies for siting its two new headquarters that will cost New York City and Arlington, Virginia, in excess of $4.6 billion. That makes it the fourth costliest mega-deal in U.S. history.
In the wake of a damning New Yorker magazine report in which six women reported CBS chairman Les Moonves of sexual assault, lawyers from CBS spoke to 11 of his 17 accusers. Their report verified that he “engaged in multiple acts of serious non-consensual sexual misconduct in and outside of the workplace, both before and after he came to CBS in 1995,” the New York Times wrote. Which is bad enough, but Moonves was still lobbying to get a $120 million severance package.
A Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that dozens of employees of Wynn Resorts were sexually harassed and assaulted over decades by founder and CEO Steve Wynn. He denied the allegations, but was removed from his position as CEO. Adding insult to injury, Wynn accused his ex-wife of encouraging the victims to come forward to better position herself in their revised divorce settlement.
WPP CEO Martin Sorrell resigned as CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising agency holding company, after an internal company investigation into his personal conduct that included misusing the firm’s assets.
Mic.com cofounders Chris Altchek and Jake Horowitz fell for the failed strategy of pivoting to video, courtesy of Facebook’s high-dollar promise that creating native content would boost ad revenue. Mic (like others) began to lay off editorial staff in the name of bulking up video content. Now that the strategy is clearly not working, the company let go the majority of the remaining staff, and sold its remaining assets to Bustle.
Good and bad leaders of 2018
Of course, some leaders straddled a fine line between good deeds and decisions that put their staff, customers, and constituents in a bad position. Here are two notable examples from the past year.
Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff supported a proposed business tax to fund housing and homeless programs in San Francisco where, notably, Jack Dorsey of taxpayer-funded Twitter has not. Benioff also publicly condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s child separation policy. However, his proposed $250,000 donation to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which was part of a $1 million pledge to help families affected by the policy, was declined by the organization. That’s because even though 650 Salesforce employees asked that Benioff reassess the company’s contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, he declined to do so, but made the pledge instead.
This past June, under CEO Mary Barra‘s leadership, General Motors lodged a complaint to the Commerce Department stating that further tariffs on imported auto parts and materials could result in higher car prices and, ultimately, a smaller GM. Several weeks ago, Barra oversaw the automaker’s plans to cut production at several factories and cut more than 14,000 salaried employees (about 15% of its workforce). The move drew rebukes from Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (a plant is located in Ontario), and the United Auto Workers (UAW). The union vowed to use “every legal, contractual, and collective bargaining avenue” to fight the changes.