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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

In wake of Charlottesville, CEOs should ready their moral voice

The amount of attention paid to how CEOs have reacted to President Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville has me wondering if corporate leaders are now being looked to as moral authorities in a way they haven’t before.

CEOs have long played nice with the Oval Office. Some – the ones I write and care about – have to because the government is their biggest customer. For others, the White House plays such a large role on issues that impact their businesses from trade policy to taxes and the workforce.

Corporate leaders generally defer to the president even if they didn’t personally vote for the person. They rightly show respect for the office.

President Trump and his love for Twitter adds a new twist. Early on, he went after Lockheed Martin and Boeing for how expensive their respective F-35 and Air Force One planes were. He has repeatedly criticized Jeff Bezos of Amazon, who owns the Washington Post. A recent tweet by Trump knocked billions in market value off Amazon in the minutes after the tweet was posted.

CEOs have had to walk gingerly around Trump. They don’t want to upset a customer or show disrespect for the office. They want to avoid drawing negative attention from someone who can be so furious in 140 characters.

But then along came Charlottesville and Trump’s comments that put neo-Nazis and white supremacists on equal footing with those protesting against them. That so-called moral equivalency has drawn sharp rebukes from across the political spectrum.

After Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned from the Trump’s now defunct manufacturing council, many CEO were being asked to state a position. I and other reporters started contacting companies with CEOs serving on the manufacturing council and strategy and policy forum and asking whether they were going to continue to serve.

I’m sure it was the last thing many of them wanted to think about. But they were being asked and people wanted to know.

More resigned and those that remained (before the council was disbanded) issued strongly worded statements condemning the neo-Nazis and white supremacists while also explaining that they felt they could still do good work by remaining on the council. They were trying to strike a balance.

But the point is that many people wanted to know where they stood on an important issue. What these CEOs thought was important. And that is something that is relatively new.

CEOs aren’t paid to take positions on political or social issues that don’t directly impact their businesses but in the last 10 years we’ve seen them increasingly take stands on issues in words and in deeds.

Many corporations have taken action when elected officials failed to lead on controversial social issues such as gay rights by instituting equal benefits and anti-discrimination policies.

The rise in recent years of the "alt-right" and the push to roll back gains made through anti-discrimination policies and practices came to a head in Charlottesville and corporate America was thrust into the middle of it.

Of course, companies like Merck, Boeing and Lockheed are huge businesses with 100,000-plus employees each. Their workforces are very diverse and they have to support what diversity brings to their businesses.

But it seems to me that this kind of leadership (I hate to call it moral leadership) will make its way down to smaller public companies and privately-held businesses.

I’m not saying that we should expect to see an era of CEOs acting as political activists. But I think we might see CEOs increasingly pulled into political and social issues whether they want to be or not.

CEOs need to be prepared.

Part of it is because of the importance that corporations play in the fabric of our society, but sadly it also is a result of the lack of leadership from the White House on these kinds of issues.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Aug 17, 2017 at 1:42 PM

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