DC’s Leadership Void & How to Navigate it

Americans have made it abundantly clear: they don’t trust their government, their institutions, or their president. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a public figure that more Americans trust than not — a measurement that’s hard to ignore with favorability ratings flipping ‘upside down’ across fame, stardom, and industry lines. And among the most distrusted? Business leaders, per the latest Pew research — second only to politicians.

So what do everyday Americans believe Washington and Wall Street have in common? They’re both high-status real estate. And in Americans’ minds, Main Street, their hometown, isn’t even on the same map. They’re two different worlds, completely alien to each other, with disparate value systems to boot.

This gulf has long been a chronic issue, but today, it’s felt more acutely than ever. The rise of animosity towards the establishment-elite began with the shock of the Great Recession. In its aftermath, resentment festered, catalyzed by the creeping indignation of a recovery built on bailouts for big business but not everyday folks. The numbers bear out what people understood intuitively: from 2007 to 2015, real income for average households stagnated, while those at the top grew.

The fallout is distrust. Sweeping distrust. Make no mistake, antipathy towards elites transcends even the greatest rift in American society: party lines. As diametrically opposed as the two sides may seem, the disillusion and outrage first articulated in the Occupy Movement is the very same that pushed voters to elect Donald Trump president… “They are grifters. The game is rigged. I am on the outside looking in.”

In these tumultuous political times, if Americans haven’t abandoned their belief in leadership entirely, they are certainly skeptical of anyone who does claim that mantle. So we’re left with a leadership void. Cynicism is awash. Every action is scrutinized, held suspect. For decision makers with a platform in the business world, it’s a perilous tightrope to walk.

This leaves CEOs from businesses of all sizes, all industries, all geographies, between a rock and a hard place. When advising my clients, I don’t start with instructions — but rather, two recent stories that each have gripped national headlines.

I’ll share my take with you, too.

Two modern-day household names, one famous, the other more… well, infamous… spotlight what’s to be gained and what’s to be risked by stepping up to the leadership challenge: Disney’s Bob Iger and Uber’s Travis Kalanick.

Let’s start with Kalanick, because the consequences of failing the leadership challenge are all too real, and he illustrates them starkly. Though no fan of his policies, in December, Kalanick joined the Trump administration’s Strategic Policy Forum, adding his name to a star-studded roster of C-suite executives seeking to influence the president and economy. The decision to work with such the unpopular figure — indeed, perhaps nowhere more unpopular than Silicon Valley — attracted controversy. Nevertheless, he insisted that engaging the administration in “principled confrontation” from a “seat at the table” was the best way to make a difference. Kalanick took a stand.

Or at least he did, until it cost him. In January, Uber suspended surge pricing in a perceived effort to scab the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s strike on JFK airport. Anger over Uber’s ties to the Trump administration boiled over in the resulting PR scandal, replete with a discontented employee base and insurgent “#DeleteUber” campaign. Ultimately, public opinion proved too much for Kalanick. He withdrew from the economic council, tail between his legs.

The result? Criticism didn’t wane, it actually intensified. Kalanick’s solution for this latest crisis only compounds the broader, “capital-C” Crisis at hand: By disavowing his professed values only as criticism reached a critical mass, Kalanick confirmed the cynical theory of business, Uber, and even himself as thin-skinned, profit-chasing, corporate machines. The takeaway for Americans? “They are who we thought they were.”

This, all at a time when Uber needed to show a sense of principle, more than ever.

But of course, Kalanick wasn’t the only business executive on Trump’s economic advisory board, which brings us to our counterexample: Bob Iger. Like Kalanick, Iger has reservations towards President Trump. (A Democrat, he has used his business to promote liberal-leaning issues like diversity and environmental sustainability. Last year, he even hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and rumors swirl that he’ll toss his hat in the Californian gubernatorial race one day.)

Iger knows what he stands for, and yet he saw the merit in Kalanick’s original argument: That, while perhaps not the most savory choice for those of us to the left of the aisle, the best chance to influence policy is to engage with the administration, to step up to the leadership challenge. Yes, Iger too faced calls to step down from the economic advisory board — he acknowledged the general public’s concern — but he articulated why staying on the council is the principled thing to do. In a contentious shareholder meeting just last month in Denver, Iger parried back accusations that his participation on the panel was backing the Administration’s agenda.

“It looks as if you are tacitly endorsing all of Trump’s policies, anti-immigrant, anti LGBT, anti-woman agenda,” accused one shareholder — representing the concerns of an audience to which Iger is fiduciarily and principally beholden. Iger countered that being on the council offers a “privileged opportunity to have a voice in the room” to express views that are “in the best interest of the company and its value,” continuing by saying his views are “likely to be adversarial” to the administration “and not an endorsement.”

But he didn’t stop there. To provide just one concrete example of clear dissent, Iger cited that Disney, and country, have benefited from an “open and a fair and a just immigration policy….That’s my position, and a position I take on behalf of this company.”

It would have been easy for Iger to kowtow to his naysayers’ criticisms. But instead, he met them, head-on. And even though it would have been easy to deny engaging with the Trump Administration, he made the difficult decision that his participation wasn’t about taking a hollow stand: It was about engaging directly with those who disagree with you, and working to make the country, the company, the culture, better than it would have been otherwise.

For it, Iger was better positioned to stand for his customers, his employees, and his values. And when the President made the almost universally unpopular decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, Iger once again acted in a manner that is consistent with his values and the best interests of Disney…by joining with a host of other CEOs in resigning from the Trump Administration’s Advisory Councils.

The lesson for CEOs in raucous political times: Every move you make will be watched. Guaranteed, it will be analyzed and criticized and politicized. That’s why, now more than ever, it’s critical to continuously reevaluate the core values that you and your company stand for and understand that, more than ever, the ways those values are applied will be dynamic.

It’s easy to spot when someone is acting as a weather vane, pointing to wherever the popular sentiment leads, and it fails the leadership challenge. Statements made with staged conviction will quickly be exposed as empty without the actual commitment needed to back them up.

And for those that hold their tongues when voices are so sorely needed… well, silence speaks volumes too.

And what I tell all my clients anxious about the outward hostility shown to anyone who raises their head above the parapet, there’s still upside to standing out as a leader. It’s the best way affect change, to demonstrate commitment to your values, to rebuild trust between Americans and American business. No, it’s not easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever is, and at the end of the day, the current leadership void just isn’t sustainable — nature abhors a vacuum, after all. I ask my clients, just as I ask you now, have you decided where you will you be when it closes?