Should CEOs Get Involved in Politics?
Should business leaders be political? Let me rephrase — should business leaders be involved in politics?
There is a difference, and it's not just a semantic one. At least in the US, we seemed to have developed a sort of allergy to the idea of a CEO getting into policy-shaping. Our only real debate on the issue has largely been confined to the issue of campaign finance reform, and there have really been just two dominant sides to that debate: either corporations are people (my friend) and money is speech, or business is a corrupting influence, a "special interest" that needs to be kept under quarantine (as if Washington DC were as pure as new-fallen snow).
And yet business leaders are finding themselves drawn into the political process — oddly enough, to try and depoliticize it.
This was clear at last night's HBR's 90th anniversary gala in New York, where Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz both expressed concerns about America's current level of partisanship, and what such ideological gridlock could do to the economy.
Discussing health care with HBR's Justin Fox, Gorsky said, "It concerns me when we politicize it," because it's so intertwined with the economy, and so many of our current economic issues can be tied back to it. As he noted, the relationship between health care and government is only going to grow in the coming years.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz offered an even more direct broadside. "America is not the America our parents fought for," he said. "It's not the America we were promised." We are, he said, presiding over a once-great country that is now drifting towards mediocrity. And he sees little reason to expect Congress to pass a long-term solution to the fiscal cliff; instead, he thinks an "irresponsible," short-term "band-aid" solution.
And concern about political gridlock is not just confined to the US. In a post-election survey of business leaders worldwide, released by HBR yesterday, 84% cited the euro zone as their chief concern for the coming months. Not competition or the war for talent — both more traditional business concerns. But whether European politicians will be able to hammer out a deal. And a full 20% of business leaders said they don't expect the euro zone to remain intact two years from now.
It's not that business leaders don't have enough other pressing issues to grapple with. Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts, also at last night's event, talked with Rotman Dean Roger Martin about the necessity to have an evolving digital strategy in the face of what she called a "mobile metamorphosis." Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL, spoke to the challenge (and the tremendous promise) of motivating a new generation of employees who see meaningful work as a necessity, not just a nicety. And Clay Christensen talked about the increasing pace of disruption across all sectors. In what I hope is a case of hyperbole, Nayar put it thus: business today is "coming from a seven-year planning cycle to a seven-minute planning cycle." And yet there's no denying that politics has become as real a business issue as any of these megatrends.
So why do we feel so uncomfortable with the worlds of business and politics colliding? It's a blowback I've gotten from commenters every time I've touched on politics in HBR's editors' blog. And it's a blowback that Howard Schultz says he gets from worried board members and shareholders. But I think it's time to recognize that being involved in policy is not the same thing as being partisan. Getting off the sidelines is not the same thing as choosing sides.
As Schultz put it, this is not an issue of "being a Republican or a Democrat" — instead, he says, it's "about being an American." It's about "trying to lead."
This is a nuance that can be hard to explain in an electorate where everything, even one's choice of adult beverage, becomes a red/blue issue. I ran into this conundrum last week, when I was interviewing another CEO interested in policy, Whole Foods Market's John Mackey, for the HBR IdeaCast (the podcast will air in January, when Mackey's new book, Conscious Capitalism, is published). In the book, Mackey pulls no punches when it comes to pointing out what he sees as misconceptions on both left and right. But he was quick to correct me when I suggested he'd staked out a "middle ground." "It's not a middle ground." Instead, it's a different ground. It's not about splitting the difference between opposite camps, saying that the truth must lie somewhere between two extremes (think of the old fallacy of the argumentum ad temperantiam).
Business leaders have no choice but to get involved in politics in a world where political gridlock is as real a threat to one's business as your competitor's new killer product or a hurricane bearing down on your warehouse. To do otherwise is not just short-sighted, it's an abdication of responsibility. In fact, the pragmatizing influence of business might be just what Congress needs. As Howard Schultz challenged the executives in the audience last night: "We all know that something is wrong. We absolutely know it. Yet we're sitting here as if everything is fine."
When has more participation in our political system ever been a bad thing? Isn't that what government "of the people, by the people, for the people" is supposed to be about?
"The question is this," as Schultz put it to the audience last night. "Are. You. A bystander?"
Or are you a leader?