Whether leaders of companies want to or not, they are going to come head to head with the social and political issues of our day. And if those leaders take the advice of professors from Harvard Business School, they’ll tackle those topics head on.
Professors Henry McGee and Nien-he Hsieh et al. wrote a case study[i] that focused on Apple and its CEO Tim Cook, who has taken a series of bold stands that had the potential of alienating some stockholders. The first came when Apple defied law enforcement and refused to release iPhone user data in 2014. Cook took a moral stance to defend consumers’ basic right to privacy, and a year later said, “We believe that a company that has values and acts on them can really change the world,” adding that stockholders who did not agree should “get out of the stock.”
Since then, Cook has used his outsize name recognition to bring attention to various controversial issues, which in some cases has affected Apple’s operations. This is especially true in China, where Cook’s pro-privacy stance does not mesh with the communist government’s broad use of censorship. Nevertheless, he continues to act as a lightning rod to events of the day, despite controversy.
Writing in the HBS case study, Hsieh pointed out that “even if you [companies and leaders] are not taking a stand on human rights, as Cook has done, you are going to wade into these debates.” In other words, in our hyperconnected world, leaders cannot sit back and avoid hot-button issues. Besides, consumers have come to expect to hear from organizations about their positions on political as well as social matters. “It’s very hard not to get involved and take a stand. There is a growing expectation that companies will do something,” Hsieh says.
Hsieh adds that today’s customers not only expect a company to have a position on social and political issues but that taking a clear position can actually help a company’s bottom line, improve employee morale, and attract customers who feel they can trust the company.
In the same vein, McGee advises leaders to regularly communicate their ideology and values to stakeholders but be ready to adjust positions when consumers challenge an organization’s positions. After all, we all must constantly reassess our positions in life, and an organization’s leader is no exception, McGee says.
Source: Forman, A. (2022, May 26.) Apple vs. feds: Is iPhone privacy a basic human right? Working Knowledge. https://www.hbswk.hbs.edu
- Do you agree that leaders of companies should inform consumers about their values? Why or why not?
- What risks do leaders take when voicing their positions?
- Are companies justified in changing their policies or positions to mollify consumers? Why or why not?
[i] McGee, H. and Hsieh, N. (2021, February.) Apple: Privacy vs. Safety (A) and (B). HBS Case Collection.