Wanted: The CEO Statesperson

I warned back in January that the Trump Calculus would force the leaders of global brands to declare themselves for progressive global values and against regressive MAGA populism and this week they did. On Wednesday, CEOs en masse abandoned Trump and the corporate councils he erected at the start of his short tenure. Some CEOs may see this as the mere vagaries of national politics, but alert executives will recognize that this is a pivotal point. A call is going out to the leaders of corporate brands. They are being asked to step up, not as captains of industry, but as CEO Statespersons.

Webster defines a statesperson as “a wise, skillful and respected leader … engaged in national and international affairs.” The reference to national and international affairs unfortunately makes this definition archaic. A CEO statesperson leads a global brand and thus has interests and responsibilities that go beyond any single country or international organization. National States, and national leaders like Donald Trump, do not necessarily represent the interests of global society. And they do not represent the rational interests of global corporations either.

Although many CEOs have yet to accept it, global corporations depend on the expansion of equitable, open and pluralistic global markets. Markets like these are fostered through global economic and political integration, open societies, expanding human rights and environmental sustainability. These are the conditions most likely to foster the social prosperity, equity, wellbeing and commercial exchange that facilitate global brand success.

Senior executives have been slow to recognize the interdependence of their commercial brand success with progressive global integration. Today’s CEO usually comes from the GenX and Boomer generations and surveys show that a majority of them don’t think CEOs should speak up about issues that are important to society. Today’s CEOs were taught that “the business of business was business” and lived in a simpler time when executives could focus solely on the bottom line and academics like Milton Friedman could win Nobel Prizes reassuring them that it was their theoretical social responsibility to do so. But that world no longer exists. It probably never did.

Millennials, on the other hand, are ahead of the game. They not only get that corporate CEOs are being called upon to become global statespersons, but they already expect their corporate leadership to be standing up. Over half of the surveyed millennials say that CEOS and other business leaders have more responsibility for speaking out on hotly debated current issues than in the past. Not only that, they preferentially want to work for brands that do so. They are harbingers of the future. Millennials have grown up with far greater ethnic diversity and have been immersed in globally connected networks and social media from birth. They are far more secular and educated than older generations and the demographics of mortality mean that they are quickly becoming the majority.

Millennials have also been raised with global brands. They recognize implicitly that global brands, by default, are global leaders given their reach, resources and associated influence. Global brands are the only global institutions that can organize truly global cross-border operations. No nation state can operate like them. They control more wealth than most countries and investment choices made by their managers can determine the prosperity or demise of entire national economies. They have massive influence due to their global networks, economic impact, supply chains and the unique ability to innovate and bring new products and service to millions. This is a reality. And with great power comes great responsibility. A public acceptance and recognition of this responsibility by CEOs is what Millennials are calling for.

Some CEOs are stumbling toward this responsibility. Take Apple CEO Tim Cook who said in a Washington Post interview:

“I think everybody has to make their own decision about it. Maybe there are compelling reasons why some people want to be silent. I think for us, though — for a company that’s all about empowering people through our products, and being a collection of people whose goal in life is to change the world for the better — it doesn’t sit right with me that you have that kind of focus, but you’re not making sure your carbon footprint isn’t poisoning the place. Or that you’re not evangelizing moving human rights forward. I think every generation has the responsibility to enlarge the meaning of human rights. I do view that a CEO today of Apple should participate in the national discussion on these type of issues.”

Laudable, but I am arguing that it is not a personal decision for Tim Cook or any other CEO to make. Whether Tim Cook likes it or not, his position helming one of the most valuable and influential global brands in the world calls him to become a CEO Statesman and take on the inevitable responsibilities that the mantle demands.

Like the Republican Party, global CEOs went along with Trump and the worldview he represents because they thought the short-term gains, like corporate tax cuts and deregulation, would outweigh any long-term damage to our fragile global world. The cost has turned out to be too high. Global brands have no stake in Trump’s trade wars. They have no stake in a reversion to tribalism. They have no stake in populist protectionism.

Global brands have been given a gift, which is a fragile open world built on open a global economy. It is imperfect and in many ways still unjust for the many of the world’s citizens. But going backward will not make anything great again. One group that has a responsibility, influence and rational interest in preserving and perfecting this open world is global brands.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, America’s founding fathers gathered at the Constitutional Convention to hash out the political future of the new nation. Would George Washington be crowned king or would a modern representative democracy emerge? In the crowd awaiting the answer was Dr. James McHenry of Maryland. As the delegates emerged from Independence Hall, McHenry cornered an exhausted Benjamin Franklin and asked him, “Well, Doctor Franklin, what have we got - a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin responded, “You have a republic ... if you can keep it.”

Global brands have been given a global world. The question is, “Can they step up and demonstrate the statesmanship needed to keep it?”

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