Strong Man Stumbles
Two years of societal and political conflagration raise the question: Should leaders speak out? Whether it’s mass shootings or the war in Ukraine or Covid-19, should they step into the fray or just keep their heads down and stay silent, sticking to their balance sheets?
I thought of this most recently when Walt Disney Co. employees pressured CEO Bob Chapek to speak out against the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. He agreed, saying the bill impacting schools was a challenge to “basic human rights.” In response, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law terminating a special tax district that the entertainment company has enjoyed for decades.
So, I reached out to Lionel Nowell III for advice. Nowell was a senior leader in corporate America, including stints at PepsiCo and RJR Nabisco. His job now is to serve on boards, including as lead independent director for Bank of America Corp. Although he couldn’t talk about Walt Disney, he had some thoughts on disasters and political issues, which he shared with me over Memorial Day weekend via email.
He absolutely believes boards should have ongoing, proactive discussions with the CEO and leadership team pertaining to high-profile issues and disasters that affect the business, as well as topics that are important to a company’s various stakeholders. Usually, the CEO will speak publicly on issues, although in certain cases, the chairman or lead independent director might. “Most importantly, the CEO/senior management and the board should be aligned on how to respond so there is no confusion,” Nowell writes.
Also, he thinks every company should have a moral compass. By that he means a North Star or guiding principles that help inform a company’s decision-making on crucial matters. “Caring about high-profile issues that affect the business and are important to shareholders, employees and communities, and running the company in a responsible way in the long-term (“Responsible Growth”) is a moral decision that is also good for the bottom line,” he writes. Nowell thinks that possible political ramifications should not be the sole determinant of how a company responds but should be one of many strategic considerations.
Our era is marked by divisive politics. CEOs and other executives are drawn into political discussions that employees, customers and even shareholders increasingly demand. Some CEOs are going to get roughed up in the bargain. No one gets out of this unscathed. In addition to Nowell, I lean on President Theodore Roosevelt for guidance (and for some gender-biased quotes). “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,” he said. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
I’d love to get your thoughts about how you’re handling difficult societal issues as senior leaders of financial institutions. You can reach me at email@example.com.
• Naomi Snyder is editor-in-chief of Bank Director