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Finding a Middle Road In the CEO’s Suite

4 min read

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

With those televised words in 1954, attorney Joseph Welch derailed Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s years-long witch hunt for communists in the government and wrecked his support in Congress.

Three years later, McCarthy died a censured and broken man, aged 48.

Welch represented the Army, which McCarthy accused of coddling communists. The lawyer reached his limit when McCarthy sullied a young attorney in Welch’s firm, suggesting at hearing that he was tied to a communist organization.

Welch’s rebuke became a history lesson in confronting political extremism, and perhaps a model for mitigating the wedge politics and extreme rhetoric now clogging our political system.

But who will play Welch’s role as moderator while legislatures like Arkansas’ stoke the culture wars, rejecting transgender rights, outlawing all abortions and restricting voting?

Corporate and business leaders may fill the void, suggests Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, outspoken professor at the Yale School of Management. He leads the nonprofit Chief Executive Leadership Institute, and he’s noted a recent willingness of CEOs to speak on social and political issues.

They feel they must, Sonnenfeld said, because moderate political voices have largely gone silent in the age of Trump. Academics and writers have long bungled the meaning of “progressives,” Sonnenfeld said, applying the label to democratic socialists, agrarian populists and the like, when “the real progressives were right down the center, a mix of Democrats and Republicans.” They rejected xenophobia and closed borders, favoring diplomacy and open trade.

“They weren’t protectionist, they weren’t segregationist, and of course they weren’t anti-science,” Sonnenfeld said in a telephone interview with Arkansas Business. “In fact they were big environmentalists. Look at Teddy Roosevelt.”

Today’s polarization is horrible for business, Sonnenfeld said. “Business leaders are just trying to get both parties right back in the center. Doug McMillon is an incredibly effective example. People like [Tyson Foods CEO] Dean Banks and before him John Tyson are globally renowned beacons of the American business mind.”

When leaders of heartland companies talk, Sonnenfeld said, recalling the old E.F. Hutton commercials, “people listen.” Executives at elite companies are now thought leaders in politics, like it or not, he said.

The Walmart Foundation spoke out powerfully against laws limiting transgender sports participation and health care, and Walmart itself supported hate crime legislation, which Arkansas passed in a watered-down form this year.

“Walmart stepped in two years ago on the Religious Freedom Act, as North Carolina euphemistically called those transgender bathroom bills,” Sonnenfeld said, adding that business pressure eventually led to the repeal of those laws.

“On that issue, we also heard from companies like AT&T and UPS,” he said. “They’re not the edgy companies that you would expect, like Patagonia or Nike or Apple.”

The Middle American message demands to be heard, he said, just as Iowa native Johnny Carson was when he said on the air that it was time for President Richard M. Nixon to resign.

“These can be watershed moments, and guys like McMillon and Banks carry a lot of credibility on major issues.”

McMillon was a leader in the Business Roundtable’s decision two years ago to redefine the mission corporations should serve. In the 2019 statement, the BRT calls for creating value for customers, investing in employees and improving diversity and inclusion. The mission steps back from slavishly serving stockholders’ interests exclusively, suggesting companies “take a larger role in societal needs, leaning from the front,” said Peter Gasca, author and director of the Community & Business Engagement Institute at Coastal Carolina University. “As our politics continues to ooze to the edges, both right and left, corporations for many represent a centrist position that many citizens crave.”

CEOs aren’t looking to be unelected public officials, Sonnenfeld said. They’d often prefer not to speak out, but they feel they must in a vacuum of leadership.

“They do not want rips in the social fabric of the country,” he said. “It’s in nobody’s interest to have angry shareholders, angry communities, companies fighting each other, or at least having workforces filled with finger-pointing rage and community boycotts of products and things like that. These days, it’s part of the strategic context of a business leader to engage in these issues.”

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