Corporate Saints

Ken Frazier, chairman and chief executive officer of Merck & Co.

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” — John Maxwell

Last week, American CEOs spoke out against President Trump’s weak response to the hate and loss of life in Charlottesville. “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism,” wrote Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck. The CEOs of Campbell’s, Under Armour, and Intel also resigned with strongly-worded statements. Within a few hours, Trump was forced to disband his two executive councils. The leaders of Corporate America spoke their conscience, and they no longer wished to work with him.

Daniel Gross had an interesting piece in Slate about these CEOs taking moral positions. His overall thesis was that executives felt Trump defied generally accepted business norms. “What’s the point of engaging with someone who expresses views that would likely be cause for the dismissal of any middle manager?” It’s obvious that there’s a clash of styles between Trump and these more circumspect executives. But there’s more to this conflict: Trump’s values are inconsistent with their closely held values.

The Corporate Saints who stood up to Trump grounded their argument first and foremost on objectivity. Much has been written about Trump’s difficult relationship with the truth, ranging from strained excuses (“He just cares more about feelings than facts!”) to accusatory titles (“Bullshitter-in-Chief”).

But executives found Trump’s statement that “many sides” were to blame for Charlottesville to be a lie too far. Notice the objective analysis in Campbell CEO Denise Morrison’s statement: “Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville.” Morrison assessed the facts as they were, and rejected Trump’s false characterization.

This laser-like emphasis on objectivity is one reason successful executives sometimes break ranks with political allies. Rex Tillerson was a major booster of Common Core, even though it was widely despised by the right wing. Tillerson acknowledged the “mounting evidence” that a lack of national educational standards was causing the U.S. to fall behind in the global economy. He even went so far as to appear in this promo video to argue on its behalf.

In addition to objectivity, Trump has also violated the corporate virtue of balance. CEOs of large corporations are used to dealing with multiple stakeholder groups — shareholders who want to slash costs, activist shareholders who care about climate change and social justice, employees with varying perspectives on diversity, globalism, and personal development. The hallmark of a successful CEO is her ability to balance these different interests while maintaining the semblance of self-control. Putting aside questions about Trump’s actual mental state, he has no doubt failed to project the appearance of calm and careful consideration.

It makes total sense that the first GOP Senator to openly criticize Trump’s “stability” and “competence” since becoming President is Bob Corker. Why? Because unlike lawyer Ted Cruz, Bob Corker is a businessman. For twelve years, he ran a successful construction company with a steady hand. No wonder he wishes the President had a more traditional (read: balanced) executive presence.

Finally, Trump repeatedly disrespects the corporate value of long-term thinking. Every executive alludes to this in the annual shareholder meeting — global vision, multi-decade initiatives, sustainability . . . We might question whether most corporations actually care more about long-term value than short-term profits. But there’s evidence many corporate leaders are taking legitimate steps to plan for the long-term. Exxon, for example, is investing millions in renewable energy to prepare for the future state without fossil fuels.

Nearly every CEO who resigned from Trump’s council suggests the President has failed to adopt the long view. “Protecting our planet and driving economic growth are critical to our future,” wrote Disney’s Bob Iger. He and Elon Musk resigned after Trump withdrew from the Paris Accords. After Charlottesville, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank referred to demographic trends: “We are always mindful of the responsibility we have to those who choose our brand, especially the young people who represent the bold and bright future of a diverse and inclusive America.” For Under Armour, entering the fray meant financial sacrifice. Trump supporters have since promised to boycott the sportswear company.

Surprisingly few evangelical Christian leaders have had the courage to break ranks with Trump. Should we expect CEOs to become America’s moral advocates over the next 3.5 years? On the one hand, it seems unlikely. Trump campaigned and won on a populist platform that was antagonistic to both political and corporate elites. But the old adage seems instructive: In the heat of battle, heroes come from unlikely sources. The fact that we don’t expect CEOs to provide convincing moral leadership suggests they might very well rise to the occasion.