Laws being passed this past week by Indiana and Arkansas to make discrimination legal on basis of religious freedom have stirred up a hornet's nest of protests across the country, causing the Republican governors of these two states to ask that the legislation be modified.
While LGBT obviously oppose these laws, most of the criticism has come from CEOs of the nation's leading companies. Last Sunday, Apple CEO Tim Cook led off the debate when he penned a powerful op-ed decrying Indiana's religious freedom law. His decision to speak out was not without risk. Apple products exist in 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal. He wrote:
"On behalf of Apple, I'm standing up to oppose this new wave of legislation... regardless of what the law might allow in Indiana or Arkansas, Apple will never tolerate discrimination."
Other CEOs, wary of similar risk, might have avoided the debate. In the past they have been reluctant to engage in these discussions, for fear of being criticized by their customers and employees, especially those who are evangelical Christians. The business response could have begun and ended with Apple.
But not this time.
In the past week, CEOs Doug McMillon of Walmart, Arne Sorenson of Marriott (a Mormon-founded company), Marc Benioff of Salesforce, and John Lechleiter of Eli Lilly (based in Indiana) have come out vigorously against similar laws. Walmart's McMillon tweeted about a similar law being considered in Arkansas,
"Every day, in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve. For these reasons, we are asking Governor Hutchinson to veto this legislation."
A few years ago, such public protest would have been surprising. For five years, I sat next to Lord John Browne, then chief executive of British Petroleum (BP), as we served together on the Goldman Sachs board. Browne is gay, yet this was a subject we never discussed. As he wrote in his poignant 2014 book, The Glass Closet, "My refusal to acknowledge my sexual orientation publicly stemmed from a lack of confidence... It is difficult to feel good about yourself when you are embarrassed to show who you actually are."
Increasingly authenticity is seen as the gold standard for leadership. Fortunately, we see more courageous CEOs - willing to take stands for what they believe and for the diversity of their employees. Now, more than ever, it is essential our society treat everyone equally regardless of religion, national origin, race, or sexual preference.
Discrimination for any reason gives a rationale for all forms of discrimination. If the law permits business owners to discriminate against gays based on their religious views, what prevents them from discriminating against Muslims or Indians?
I know firsthand that wading into these debates has its downsides. As CEO of Medtronic in 2000, I spoke out against the Boys Scouts' decision to prevent gay scouts from joining their ranks. I also supported the Medtronic Foundation's decision to withhold grants to the Scouts because the Foundation does not fund organizations that discriminate for any reason. I received a lot of criticism from evangelical Christians and former Scouts among Medtronic employees, but it was worth it. Eventually, the local chapters amended their policies to accept all boys regardless of sexual preference, and years later the national organization followed suit.
It is encouraging that CEOs have taken an active role in this debate. But they can't do it alone. Leaders from all walks of life, from government officials to civic leaders, need to embrace diversity in all forms. Speaking publicly against discrimination is the first step in that process.
As Tim Cook wrote in his op-ed, "Men and women have fought and died fighting to protect our country's founding principles of freedom and equality. We owe it to them, to each other and to our future to continue to fight with our words and our actions to make sure we protect those ideals."
To the CEOs who have already spoken out, thank you. Your voices are powerful, and have already forced the states of Indiana and Arkansas to amend their laws. As this national debate shows, there is much work left to do for Americans to accept all people as being equal under the law.
Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of True North and Authentic Leadership. He is the former chair and CEO of Medtronic. Read more at www.BillGeorge.org, or follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.