Modern CEOs should all be prepared to serve as ‘CMPs’, or ‘chief moral philosophers’, according to an op-ed at Quartz at Work from former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger. 
Now a senior adviser with Singapore-based PR agency WATATAWA, Rusbridger notes: “It is no longer enough to simply be responsible for traditional business performance criteria. A business leader is also accountable for a company’s position on the swathes of social issues that are dividing societies around the world.”
Conceding that moral philosophy “is not a discipline which offers up easy solutions”, Rusbridger cites Delta Airlines’ 2018 decision to end its relationship with the National Rifle Association. In response, conservative politicians in Georgia immediately abolished a $40 million fuel-tax break the firm had enjoyed in that state.
“As Delta learned,” Rusbridger muses, “having principles isn’t cheap.”
He writes: “We could say that the lesson learned is an easy one: Don’t let your company get involved in politics. Stick to your knitting, and let others do the hand-wringing. In an increasingly polarised world, stay neutral. Be Switzerland!”
However, he points out: “The middle-ground is now growing vanishingly small. Today’s political and culture wars can feel like a centrifuge, forcing debate to extremes, with no option to stand ground where the middle used to be. To the combatants at each polarity of a given issue, the very act of lingering in the middle is actually taking sides.”
With that in mind, he adds: “If you don’t believe this applies to you or your company, consider this checklist: guns, LGBTQ+ issues; tax avoidance; Brexit; religion; diversity; child labour; animal welfare; drugs; gambling; drink, privacy; gender; fair pay; environmental impact; obesity; governmental repression; #MeToo; free speech; diversity; class; disability, impact on children; ethical supply chains; climate change; water; abortion; immigration; same-sex marriage; homelessness.
“Assuming you employ human beings, some of these will apply to some aspect of your business. Your employees will care passionately about at least one of these issues, and likely several of them. So will multiple stakeholders and millions on social media who, for the first time in history, have a unique voice and power of influence.”
Is Rusbridger correct in arguing that no CEO can afford to “be Switzerland”? Or could CEOs end up in commercially dangerous waters by announcing where they stand on the issues he lists?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Values are not neutral. So any company that is going to align itself with a particular set of values, publish them on its website and use them to underpin its brand strategy is making a conscious decision to leave neutrality behind. But the extent to which those values are meaningful depends upon the scale to which they are lived. This week, the Institute held its Let’s Talk Values event in Belfast, and speaker Jackie Le Fevre – who applies a values-based approach to recruitment – said that if an organisation’s chief exec doesn’t live its values, they simply become meaningless.
“When I try to think of companies that deliberately decide to ‘be Switzerland’ and avoid associating themselves with values altogether, I can only say I’m not aware of any such firms. A speaker from wealth-management specialists St James’s Place said at our Belfast event that the company doesn’t publish its values, but ensures that it lives them. And of course, values exist within companies regardless of whether senior leaders stencil them on the walls. They are there, threaded throughout the corridors, and you can uncover them. Sometimes they are a force for good – and sometimes less so.”
Cooper notes: “As Jackie identified in her speech, the big problem at the moment is that we are under so much scrutiny, the power of which we cannot underestimate – particularly when it stems from customers. Another speaker at our event was Alan Williams, director of values consultancy ServiceBrand Global. His message was that your brand is only what other people say it is – you don’t own it, in terms of how it’s discussed and referred to in public discourse. To support that message, Alan told a revealing anecdote about United Airlines:
“About 12 years ago, the company spent millions of dollars on an image-making corporate video that got around 16,000 views on YouTube. But in 2009, a disgruntled customer whose property had been damaged on a United flight released a YouTube music video called ‘United Breaks Guitars’, which has so far chalked up almost 20 million views.  It proved that the firm was unable to control what people thought of its service. And those sorts of impressions and perceptions will impact upon, and fuel, people’s purchasing decisions.”
Cooper points out: “One worry that’s voiced over and over again in the corporate world is that taking an ethical stance is, in the short term, more expensive. But that’s often because we are measuring it by short-term criteria, such as within a particular budget year or – even worse – quarter. We can mutter to ourselves in a concerned tone, ‘If we take the position that we’re ethical, then that means we have to source sustainably.’ And yes – perhaps that would require some upfront investment. But instead of viewing that as a cost, we could look at it in a completely different way: we’re investing in our values. We’re investing in our reputation. We’re investing in the long-term sustainability of our organisation.”
She adds: “Having a value means that it must impact upon, and permeate, your entire organisation. As we found in our recent research on these issues, there’s a sharp disconnect between the values that organisations say they hold, and those of the people who are coming to work. When we’ve asked why, one of the most common responses we’ve heard is that marketing departments are setting the values – but HR units aren’t recruiting to them. So, we need a stronger recognition that values have to be embedded throughout the DNA of our organisations. And in any firm where that has already happened, how can the CEO be morally neutral?”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on aligning values
Image of Socrates and Plato statues courtesy of Anastasios71, via Shutterstock