I once had a teacher who started each year’s class by swinging his arms around swiftly (like a windmill). He would say, “These are my arms, and I can swing them if I want to. I have that right. This is my body to do with as I choose, so I can swing my arms like this and you can’t stop me. But my right to swing my arms…” (he would now begin moving from the front of the class toward a student in one of the nearby desks as he was talking) “…ends at this student’s head.” And he would dramatically, with great speed, almost whack the student but stop just short of touching his or her head. The class was mesmerized during his little opening speech, and of course, we would all flinch when we thought he might take his rights too far and encroach on the physical space of another.
He would then go on to explain that his “right” to swing his arms was limited by the other person’s right to be physically safe, to remain unmolested. He told us that this is the way we should think about our freedom in the classroom – using such “norms and expectations” of civilized behavior to both (1) be ourselves and (2) respect others around us.
It’s a simple lesson. A no-brainer.
How does this apply to Chick-fil-A?
The recent debate around Chick-fil-A’s owner as an example of the integration of one’s own beliefs into a business model has captivated the nation. Management experts are asking: “Should CEO’s limit themselves in expressing their faith and beliefs in the way they run their businesses? Don’t we need CEO’s with conviction and a strong guiding compass?”
I think we’re overcomplicating things. We could take a lesson from my old teacher.
When corporate leaders take controversial social/political stands, consumers will often begin taking sides, like in the recent example of Chick-fil-A fans vs. Starbuck’s fans in the debate surrounding gay marriage. You can read about this consumer rivalry at “Chicken or coffee? Gay marriage or no? When companies take sides”. In an HBR blog this week on “Chick-fil-A and the Question of Faith in Business” we are encouraged to consider how a CEO should “integrate his or her deepest held beliefs and values into the corporate culture and ethos.” The author raises the question, “What are the possibilities and pitfalls of integrating faith and work?” but offers no answers.
We see in the example of Chick-fil-A just what can happen once a company’s founder goes on record with strong and controversial beliefs. Consumers begin to take sides, employees often feel a strong pressure to “defend” where they work or, if they disagree with the company founder’s values, consider leaving. In this economy, sparking community pressure for people to leave their jobs is a BIG DEAL. Suddenly the outcome of “standing up for what you believe in” as a CEO or owner can quickly lead to the very real bullying of the employees that make your company a success. By choosing to make your beliefs a part of your company’s brand, you draft your employees and vendors into your fight as well.
This might not be what you meant to have happen, but hey, you weren’t “swinging your arms” alone in your own home – you took your show on the road, into your community – and if you act carelessly or maliciously, others are going to be impacted.
Lessons from Chick-fil-A
Sure, as a CEO or business owner, your beliefs should play a role in the way you choose to lead, the kind of company you create, and the decisions you make. But you are not alone. When you start a business you are building a community – of employees, customers, vendors, and even in the towns, cities, and social media spheres in which you operate. It’s not just about you. Just like that classroom where the teacher has the right to be an avid arm swinger – there are “norms and expectations” –sensible and fair limitations when we make the choice to operate in the presence of others. And even more so when we choose to lead others.
Because Evolutionary leaders are driven by a mission beyond the work itself, they will naturally create, lead, or choose to work for companies with values that match their own. It’s not bad to have a guiding purpose for the work that you do – and in the case of an Evolutionary leader – that commitment to a higher cause is the critical component for successfully leading positive transformational change in the world. Evolutionary leaders are not the type to hide what they believe; transparency is a core value Evolutionaries cling to. But when it comes to being openly political, they know there is a balance between being true to what you believe and making those beliefs part of your brand.
While it’s OK to strongly stick to core personal beliefs, incorporating controversial political positioning into your business operations and marketing can negatively impact the many employees and vendors that rely on your company every day. So, unless you’re political or faith-based beliefs are fundamentally a part of “WHY” you are in business in the first place, think twice before making these part of your “North Star” when leading your company culture. If you are in business to help people solve their shipping problems (like UPS) then it is not a big part of your brand to say “oh, and we also support gay marriage”. But if you are in the business of assisting professional women by providing them with personal shoppers to help them look their best and build credibility in any career situation – you better also be “pro-women” in the movement for equal pay and equal representation in business and politics.
In other words, you can be true to yourself and your beliefs and still contribute to creating environments where a diversity of ideas and beliefs can thrive. You can be a transparent and authentic leader, and also be open and sensitive to the many people who rely on you and your business. That’s the burden of leadership – you are not a lone wolf – you are a shepherd of many.