HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW
When we first started studying CEO activism, three years ago, we never imagined how significant this phenomenon would become. At the time a small but growing band of executives were taking public stands on political and social issues unrelated to their companies’ bottom lines. Since then, controversies over laws affecting transgender people in North Carolina, police shootings in Missouri, and executive orders on immigration have drawn increasing numbers of CEOs into contentious public debates. More recently, the White House’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, response to the clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and decision to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals have galvanized many U.S. corporate leaders to speak out and take action.
Of course, corporations have long played an active role in the U.S. political process. They lobby, make contributions to candidates, and fund political action committees and campaigns on various issues in an effort to shape public policies to their benefit. But CEO activism is something new. Until recently, it was rare for corporate leaders to plunge aggressively into thorny social and political discussions about race, sexual orientation, gender, immigration, and the environment. The so-called Michael Jordan dictum that Republicans buy sneakers too reminds executives that choosing sides on divisive issues can hurt sales, so why do it? Better to weigh in on what traditionally have been seen as business issues, such as taxes and trade, with technocratic arguments rather than moral appeals.