As a CEO I inadvertently inflamed emotions over political ideology. Other leaders can learn from my mistake this election year

As a former CEO of a 35,000-person global organization who now sits on the boards of three public companies, I’m feeling empathetic toward my fellow business leaders as we head into a close and contentious election year here in the United States. The June 27 presidential debate feels like the opening act for newly inflamed and heightened emotions, which means business leaders will once again find themselves managing political drama at work.

Even outside the U.S., this is an unprecedented year when it comes to national elections. There are more than 50 worldwide in 2024, affecting nearly half the planet’s population. These range from the U.S. presidential contest in November to ones already completed, such as the votes in Mexico and Taiwan, which will hold sway in geopolitics for years to come.

This time of pivotal choices is fraught for everyone, and especially business leaders. Where previously there was clear separation between an individual’s personal and professional lives, increasingly those lines are dissolving. Business leaders are not only expected to make proactive statements and take stands on the seemingly most divisive issues of the day, but to do so in ways that don’t overstep or offend, which is—by definition—a near-impossible task.

Business leaders are likely to feel trepidation, to put it mildly, over the consequences that may come from saying or doing the wrong thing. Watching the resignations at top universities over academic leaders’ statements and handling of the Gaza conflict underlines the stakes.

Looking back on my own experience, I understand how hard it can be. One misstep in particular stands out.

Following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I wrote a few lines to commemorate her life in a routine weekly email to my team—a message that was well-intended, personal, and free of politics. In my mind, I was acknowledging the life of a fellow female graduate of Cornell—someone who had accomplished so much, and well after the age at which many professionals are considered past their prime. To me, it was about acknowledging diverse voices, and the pride you feel when someone from your alma mater goes on to accomplish big things. I made no mention of her views or her rulings. I included a photo of her, and ran the article past my human resources, legal, and public relations partners, to be sure I wasn’t tripping any wires.

What I failed to do was think about how those comments might be interpreted beyond HR, legal, and PR, among those colleagues who saw her as a standard-bearer for a moral and political position on women’s rights, including health care and therefore abortion. I did not anticipate that what I considered an acknowledgment of an extraordinary life would be interpreted by others as blanket approval of all of her public positions and rulings.

What I lacked, when I conceived my post, was a wider perspective. But soon enough a team member helped me expand the frame.

Throughout my corporate career, I have maintained an inbox where team members could comment anonymously on any issue that might arise in our organization, and through it I did get one particularly strongly worded response to my post. In order to give this commenter an equal voice in the conversation, I read the message at my next all-hands, with authentic gratitude for the writer, thanking them for their candor and courage in sharing a different perspective.

For me, a big takeaway was that a leader committed to inclusion must purposefully seek contrarian views. True inclusion welcomes the viewpoints of people from a broad range of backgrounds, including political persuasions. People in leadership roles are able to be successful when they have genuine, trusted relationships with a wider spectrum of stakeholders. As leaders, we need to stay curious and empathetic, taking in, and comprehending, the strongly held views of our stakeholders, even when they don’t mesh with our own personal ideology.

What could’ve saved me were a few simple conversations with other members of my team. People who might have explained, simply, how my acknowledgment didn’t reflect shared company values but rather created the impression of support for one side of the political aisle over the other.

My example isn’t even one of the harder needles to thread. It was voluntary, whereas today no doubt we’re all aware of at least a half-dozen divisive topics on which leaders may be compelled to share their opinions. This creates a tremendous amount of pressure—whether from employees or customers—to say something. Saying nothing, in some cases, might be seen as abdicating the leader’s responsibility to care for their people. In fact, saying nothing, when shared values or the safety and well-being of stakeholders are at risk, can be perceived as cowardly or even undermine trust.

For leaders walking this thin line today, I would offer this: Consider the difference between values and ideology. In any group, there are shared values. That is your north star. Ideologies—often originating in politics or religion—are more likely to be personal. There are exceptions where ideology is a shared value: A religious organization, say, or a bank that advocates for free market capitalism.

This framework—shared values on one hand, personal ideology on the other—has, for me, been a clear indicator of when to speak up, and when to keep my personal positions to myself.

A leader should only feel pressure to make a statement on public matters if it reflects on the purpose of the organization, on the central values held by the organization or the needs of the people that leader serves. And it follows then that organizations that have already done the heavy lifting to clearly define their purpose and values will be better prepared to make good decisions in the face of challenging public issues. This approach deprioritizes what a leader wants to say and instead elevates what must be said for the organization to thrive, while doing the right thing for its people.

It also means talking to a range of stakeholders—board members, key constituents, investors, valued customers, partners, etc.—to better understand their potential reactions before making any sort of statement. Take the time to weigh the broader consequences of your actions in the context of personalities, standards, and corporate values.

Just as the saying goes “country over party,” from a business leader’s perspective, the path forward must be guided by “purpose over politics.”

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