Should You Mix Business and Politics?
Making virtuous choices
The Humours of an Election — The Polling by William Hogarth, 1755 (public domain - Wikipedia)
“A real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” — David Foster Wallace, 2000
Given that politics commands so much of our daily attention, that leaves business leaders with tough decisions about how to stand out and get their messages heard. It also raises a critical question: when (if ever) is it okay to venture into a political issue?
Politics and religion are like the third rail of conversation. Whether at Thanksgiving dinner with family or in social settings with unfamiliar faces, it's generally accepted that it's impolite to launch into these topics for fear of offending or alienating someone.
The same has been true of businesses. When I was an executive at Ford Motor Company—and a very visible one online—I had to stifle any political commentary. The rationale was that we made cars for people of all political affiliations, and my personal views couldn't distract from our main effort.
“I am invariably of the politics of the people at whose table I sit, or beneath whose roof I sleep.” — George Borrow, 1843
Businesses are deeply involved in politics, make no mistake. Government affairs teams are made up with people tasked with making political decisions. For example, they decide how a business treats its community and how it makes decisions that affect the public. Or, to put it in more colloquial terms, lobbying.
These are all necessary functions, as stakeholders in any corporation include the general public beyond its customers. There are laws and regulations that need to be followed, and businesses would no doubt prefer to have an easier time navigating them.
“Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” — Ambrose Bierce, 1906
When it comes to taking a stand on issues or personalities though, it's risky. We cover that in more detail in the follow-up essay, previously only available to premium members, and now opened up to everyone:
The challenge is that in our modern political sensibilities and two-party system, we set things up as a binary decision: left versus right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.
This is the classic either/or that pits one side against another. If you choose X, you stand against Y. Paper or plastic, with cheese or without, Yankees or Red Sox, gas or electric, good or evil.
The list goes on, but the juxtaposition of two forces makes it seem as if everything is binary rather than nuanced. The world is rarely that starkly different.
This positioning appeals to our base instinct that, when given two options, we can easily choose one of them. And it works. Because the flip side is too much information.
Have you noticed that in business, if you decide to support one side, you’re automatically vilified by the other?
On our reactionary platforms, we read the headline first and the main article later—or more likely, never. The public digs in and forms its opinion based on limited facts, and in a nuanced situation, there’s little room for explication.
Oh sure, the Twitter thread has evolved, making the platform a potentially more useful tool than the sniper-like @ reply feature alone. I wish threads existed back in my days at Ford.
Aside: here’s a useful bit of advice on how to write a tweetstorm.
“Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm.” — Pubilius Syrius, c. 40 B.C.
How to Take a Stand
As the leader of an organization, it is your responsibility to guide your people through crises. In those moments, people look for inspiration. They look for hope. And they notice your character. What you stand for, particularly in moments of crisis, will define who you are.
When you’re responsible for the fate and livelihood of tens, scores, even thousands of people, the pressure is palpable. Which is why it’s even more important that you act virtuously. You’re in charge, but you're not a king or queen. You're part of a team.
In The Spirit of the Laws,1 Montesquieu outlined the stark difference between supporting a monarchy versus a popular government, in particular noting that we need to be more virtuous in the case of the latter:
“There is no great share of probity necessary to support a monarchical or despotic government. The force of laws in one, and the prince's arm in the other, are sufficient to direct and maintain the whole. But in a popular state, one spring more is necessary, namely, virtue.
“For it is clear that in a monarchy, where he who commands the execution of the laws generally thinks himself above them, there is less need of virtue than in a popular government, where the person entrusted with the execution of the laws is sensible of his being subject to their direction.
“It is also clear that a monarch, who, through bad advice or indolence, ceases to enforce the execution of the laws may easily repair the evil; he has only to follow other advice or to shake off this indolence. But when in a popular government there is a suspension of the laws, as this can proceed only from the corruption of the republic, the state is certainly undone.”
Back in lack 2008 and early 2009, Ford, GM and Chrysler were faced with an existential threat: the global financial and automotive markets were crumbling, and the industry was on the precipice. Only Ford had enough liquidity to survive. The other two of the “Big Three” were asking the federal government for assistance.
This was the third rail. How was Ford to avoid or embrace it?
We opted for virtue.
Ford trekked to Washington twice with its competitors, sitting shoulder to shoulder with them before Congressional committees, not asking for a bailout for itself, but advocating for its competitors and for the larger global automotive supply chain. Ford knew that if either one of its domestic competitors cratered, it could very well take down the entire industry.
We recalled the words of John Donne in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” from 1624:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
There was something greater at stake in this case. It was about more than just Ford; the concern was for the industry. [Related: Pulling Together—Separately]
When we find ourselves at a crossroads, facing an existential threat that may cause harm to some group of our stakeholders, it's the right time to act.
The concept of noblesse oblige comes to mind.
While commonly associated with nobility, it's probably more universally understood as the saying “with great power comes great responsibility.”
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” — Luke 12:48
As a token of your position as a leader, and of a business's standing in the community, if there are issues that may affect them adversely, you have the opportunity—some might even say the duty—to address it.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Theodore Roosevelt in 1858. Teddy was a man of action, a man of principle, to whom honor and virtue were everything.
He stood up to trusts and unions alike, breaking logjams after protracted strikes and unfair practices. He didn’t rush into such fracases headlong, understanding that it wasn't the president's responsibility or purview, and he didn't want to create a precedent. But when he did so, he did it with pure intentions.
“The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who ‘but for the vile guns would have been a valiant soldier.’” — Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
As the election season (thankfully) draws to a close, consider how your team is doing amid the drumbeat. As them how they're holding up. Offer an understanding ear and a soft shoulder, regardless of where their political affiliations lie.
And consider how your own reputation holds up in all of this. Because what you choose to do or say (or avoid) will send a message to your people. And in doing so, you'll give them license to act accordingly.
“When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community.” — Montesquieu, 1745
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Don’t miss part 2 of this topic, plus three timely links, three timeless stories, and a recommended book and podcast:
Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate link. I get a small commission when you make a purchase.