On Making Public Political Statements

Apr 11, 2024 | About L2L, All Blogs, Bias, Human-Centered Practices, Identity, Leadership

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What Can Leaders Say?

Over the past five years, I have found myself taking urgent calls from leaders about making appropriate public statements regarding national and international conflicts, harm, and violence. Late last year, I read multiple articles about leaders who were feeling pressured to make or clarify their organization’s statement(s) on the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

This expectation has been on CEOs across industries since before October 7, which was the most recent flash point. This intense pressure to make a statement reaches back to the murder of George Floyd, back to Trayvon Martin, and our relatively new normal of social media and internet platforms from which anyone can speak. 

It’s becoming an event to make a company statement, which puts leaders in difficult, if not impossible, situations. We are asked to make a statement on behalf of our company, our people, and our boards. And we have to get it “right” without defending, condoning, or offending anyone. 

We need to ask ourselves why. 

In talking to leaders over the past couple of years, I’ve heard their grief, fear, helplessness, and frustration. Leaders are trying to honor and extend care and consideration for all their employees’ values, political beliefs, feelings, and mental health while maintaining business operations. And all while multiple communities scrutinize their every word.

Yes, leaders are models and they are the face of their organizations. Leaders are the bearers of values and the cultivators of belonging. But what are we really asking of leaders when we say they need to make a definitive statement on nuanced, complicated, and multilayered situations?

Addiction to Urgency and Bias Toward Action

In some cases, employees desire a statement so they can feel seen and heard, especially if part of their identity intersects with the issue. Workers are seeking stability in the uncertainty and want an organization to reflect their personal values. And honestly, they’re feeling powerless to stop the brutality they continuously see. 

But these very understandable desires are easily coopted by our culture of urgency and bias toward action. In reality, a statement is not an action. It does not have an impact on the conflict or provide aid to those in need.

Were it not for social media’s expectation of relentless sharing, virtue signaling, and cancel culture, leaders might not feel the same pressure to make public statements. That “pressure” we feel is driven by what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls social media’s “hypercompetitive attention economy” and our cultural urgency for an instant response–not necessarily by our own values or the values of our organization.

And often, when we rush to make statements, we miss the full nuance of a situation. We can take a stance that reflects only a fragment of the issue, And we can unintentionally shame or marginalize a group of people by trying to declare who’s “right” or “wrong.”

Maybe we need to think about why we feel this pressure and who it’s serving. 

Maybe being quiet can be its own statement.

A Leader’s Inner Agility

Recently, one CEO shared with me that she had to sit with several employees’ pain and frustration because she had not released a statement on behalf of their organization regarding October 7. Her employees felt betrayed. They felt like the organization needed to take a stand for them and for others.

Meanwhile, the CEO’s personal stance was far from neutral. She had a family and cultural connection with the issue and a strong emotional reaction to both the news of the attack and the ensuing retaliation. What could she say on behalf of everyone in the organization?

The CEO’s inner agility allowed her to invite employees who wanted a statement to talk with her. She listened deeply to multiple perspectives and requests from across the organization. These were difficult conversations, but they built trust through vulnerability and transparency. 

In the end, she decided that a statement taking a moral position would not only fail to represent every person in the organization but would ultimately exclude many employees and board members.

She told her employees she heard their concerns and their desires and explained why she would not be releasing a company statement.

Leaders Are Humans, Too

As leaders, we WILL have personal and emotional reactions to what’s happening in the world. We will belong to groups affected by politics, wars, attacks, and injustices. And our employees will belong to these same groups and many different ones.

It will take incredible inner agility to explore our own emotions and act with intention while staying aligned with the values established by our organization. Our Future of Equitable Work community is exactly the kind of place where you can find camaraderie, perspective, wisdom, and compassion for what you’re facing.

Lean Into The “And”

As you’re weighing this or similar issues as a leader, I want to offer you a way to hold contradictions and competing desires with compassion for others and for yourself. 

This leader I mentioned above leaned into the “and,” as we say at Leverage to Lead. The “and” is where multiple, diverse perspectives meet and share space, where they are held with regard and open, healthy disagreement. The “and” is where we don’t just say we welcome diversity, but where we actively welcome it.

Our goal at Leverage to Lead is to help leaders build their capacity to live in the “and,” in order to see every person’s humanity and build connections across multiple perspectives, and make a way forward together.

When we make quick statements without pausing to understand the nuances on all sides, we lose the “and.” We risk over-simplifying instead of holding complexity. We risk allowing a stance to make someone “good” or “bad.”

If your organization can make a statement that offers clear and direct aid to people, then please do so. 

Otherwise, consider how any statement you could make would be rooted in your values and supportive of your employees. 

Consider who you would be making a statement for. Consider the impact of a statement on your whole team.

In my experience, when people already know and embody your organization’s values, they don’t demand a statement. When they already feel seen and heard, and when they experience belonging, they don’t ask for a statement. A demand for a statement can be a signal of the need to be seen and valued in the organization.

Let’s Be In It Together

I know that uncertainty seems to be the prevailing experience during these changing times. And our uncertainty can give us the capacity to pause and think deeply about how we keep our organization aligned with its stated values. Our values-aligned leadership matters more than ever. We have the ability to impact not only those on our team but also those who are watching from the outside.

At a time when people’s trust in our institutions is faltering, leaders can be a source of stability, not from a single remark we make, but from everyday, intentional, and values-based decisions.

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