Over the past week, I’ve been reflecting on the question of leadership. But not in the more typical “best practices from Harvard Business Review” sense.
My concern has been about leadership in the context of things well beyond the scope of our day-to-day client work. I’ve been thinking about our team as people in the community we have created here at CooperKatz – as well as in the context of the larger society that surrounds us.
We are experiencing a difficult and painful time in our nation. For so many (including me), the news cycle is relentless, disheartening, overwhelming and more than a bit scary.
In business, one is taught (whether explicitly or implicitly) to avoid “getting political.” Aside from those organizations directly engaged in issues advocacy or the political process, many business professionals tend to lay low on the bigger questions facing our society as a whole. There is a “false neutrality” to how businesses operate in the world, which creates little space to address issues that cut so deep.
From my perspective as a human being and a CEO (pro tip: the human part should come first), our current moment has little to do with the “business as usual” of political parties or general leanings toward conservative, moderate or liberal. The anguish of watching the ugliness in Charlottesville unfold was only matched by the anguish of watching people with too much power and influence twist themselves into knots to avoid condemning those that deserve it – namely neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
This is not about the typical Republican or Democrat in-fighting. These are much bigger, harder and more central challenges. Challenges that ask us deep, difficult questions about our values as human beings, our ethical frameworks and the breadth of our capacity for empathy.
All this has led me to wonder, how does one respond as an organizational leader to issues that go so far beyond our daily mandates?
There is no easy – or single – answer to that question. But for me, it starts with acknowledgment.
This means openly speaking about how difficult and distracting (if not, at times, impossible) it is to try to go about one’s own “business as usual” when the news is this hard. When so many people are in physical or emotional pain. When whole communities within our society fear for their safety – and question our nation’s willingness to protect them. When saber-rattling over nuclear weaponry makes me think I’m back in the early 1980s, when we were all convinced global annihilation could be just around the corner.
I personally find it maddening at times to read the media or catch up on social channels. But that’s also my job as a communications professional. Nor would I ever want to look away. As a citizen, it is imperative to remain engaged.
My point in sharing these thoughts here is the same as when I wrote to our entire company after the events in Charlottesville. It is to openly acknowledge that we are human beings as well as business people and PR professionals. We are here to support one another in our own community. If people need to talk, need to take a walk to clear their heads, need to find moments to gather – organizations today must make space for that.
Not everyone in any given company is the same. Not everyone will agree on every issue. Yet we are sharing in a collective experience, nonetheless.
We need more senior leaders ready to proactively speak and acknowledge these bigger issues. We fret over being “too political,” or the risk of isolating clients or colleagues by sharing opinions in this turbulent reality. But I worry much more about remaining silent.
That is why, in the wake of Charlottesville, I appreciated the words of Tim Ryan (US chairman and senior partner at PwC) when he said via Twitter that “free speech and assembly are essential to the American way of life – but hatred and violence are not.”
I also – more than ever – appreciate the kind, talented, ethical and caring group of people that make up our own community here at CooperKatz.
They are human beings first and absolutely top-notch business professionals second. If all executives remember that, we’ll have a much better chance of deserving our titles as “leaders.”
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