Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has pledged his firm’s support for the Yes vote in a forthcoming Australian referendum on same-sex marriage, saying that he believes it is “very important” for the airline’s employees, customers and shareholders to do so. The Qantas boss has stayed true to his cause for months – even after weathering a pie in the face during a speech in Perth back in the spring, showing the extent to which he wants to be personally identified with the Yes campaign.

Joyce is not the only corporate figure who has recently used the company around him as a megaphone for his political stance. As the Financial Times notes, Starbucks leader Howard Schultz has weighed in against President Trump’s ambivalent handling of the Charlottesville protests, which saw the emergence of neo-Nazis on to Mainstreet USA.

“This is a time in the history of our country when every business leader needs to demonstrate the moral courage to stand up for what this country is all about,” Schulz said. “We all feel unsettled. I feel I have an even bigger responsibility as a business leader now to step into the political discussion.”

A 21 August article at Inc.com by organisational culture expert Marissa Levin even went so far as to say that a separation of business and politics is “no longer an option” in the current climate. Is this the case – or could business leaders alienate customers or staff by explicitly nailing their colours to the mast?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “We put authenticity at the heart of our leadership framework. Part of that involves recognising your values, behaving accordingly, and speaking out when you see unethical behaviour, or people behaving with a lack of integrity. So where issues like these are concerned, of course business leaders should raise their voices, because the case for inclusivity and diversity is a compelling one, and you should want staff to feel comfortable with bringing their whole selves to work. Coming out in support of diversity and inclusivity is therefore the right thing to do. If that’s considered to be ‘straying into politics’, then my response would be to say no – we all have a stake in this.”

However, Cooper says: “Where I would take issue with a political stance is if an organisation describes itself as – for example – Republican or Democrat. How could a CEO supporter of one of those parties, who is just one person in the organisation, say that everybody else shares the same political views?

“Other than that, I’m really with Marissa Levin on this one – just as many business leaders seem to be. I don’t know whether it’s entirely down to current debates, or whether there’s a sense that information is more freely available, so we feel more entitled to ask questions. But we are becoming far more curious about what people believe and why. And if we see unethical actions arising from people’s beliefs, then we are within our rights to seek explanations and to formulate challenges.”

Cooper adds: “If customers’ views don’t align with yours, then they obviously have a choice. But if you’re able to articulate what you believe in, and live those beliefs – especially when we often see huge disconnects between the espoused values of organisations and those of the people who lead them – then carry on articulating. And by all means, amplify, too.”

For further thoughts on authenticity and integrity, check out these learning resources from the Institute