Citizen CEO

Some two decades ago, I wrote in a book that nearly no one read that while historically they had been different, leadership in government and leadership in business were beginning to converge.*

But now times have changed. The old rules no longer apply. To create change in the twenty-first century a more eclectic approach will be required. More precisely, 1) politicians will have no choice but to take cues from their corporate counterparts; 2) business executives will have no alternative but to learn lessons from leaders in government; and 3) leaders in both domains will have to reinvent themselves to create something new… the reinvented leader: the man or woman whose capacity to create change will confirm that what works in one domain is nearly identical to what works in the other.

My prediction was accurate. Political leaders and corporate leaders are far more similar now than they are different. What has not, however, happened, is that leaders in one domain cross over in any numbers to the other. There are occasional exceptions to this general rule: first CEO and then Mayor Mike Bloomberg is a notable example. But by and large leaders stay in their lanes. More specifically, by and large leaders in the private sector confine themselves to the private sector. They are careful not to take risks by venturing into the public one.

The presidency of Donald Trump – and the inefficacy of government more generally – has thrown this practice into question. In recent months, more CEOs have spoken out against political business as usual, and for improved governance in the White House and beyond. Recent examples:

  • Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier (who resigned from the president’s American Manufacturing Council in the wake of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville): “As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”
  • Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz: “This is a time in the history of our country when every business leader needs to demonstrate the moral courage to stand up for what this country is all about.”
  • JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon: “Constructive economic and regulatory policies” are insufficient to get the country back on track given the “divisions in our country. It is a leader’s role, in business or government, to bring people together, not tear them apart.”
  • Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff: “CEOs have to be responsible for something more than their own profitability. You have to serve a broader group of stakeholders – from employees to the environment – and when politicians don’t get things right, corporate leaders have to act. That’s a big shift.”
  • Marriott CEO Arne Sorensen: A more political role for chief executives today is “unavoidable and essential….There is enormous anxiety right now among our guests, and our community all over the world. They want to hear a voice that is welcoming, and affirming.”
  • Apple CEO Tim Cook: “The reality is that government, for a long period of time, has for whatever set of reasons become less functional and isn’t working at the speed that it once was. And so it does fall, I think, not just on business but on all other areas of society to step up.”

Sentiments such as these are in consequence of bad circumstances. But they are welcome. The United States can no longer afford leaders who are siloed. We need CEOs who recognize that corporate social responsibility assumes a civic role. We need CEOs who openly acknowledge that issues such as immigration and education require their intermittent intervention. We need CEOs who are, if not citizens first, at least citizens second.

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*Reinventing Leadership: Making the Connection Between Politics and Business, State University of New York Press, 1999.

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