In the business world, standing up for one’s values can be difficult, as matters of conscience and conviction can sometimes be at odds with financial and public relations considerations. When a group of leaders needs to negotiate a shared public position on its values, the task becomes even harder. Various leadership coalitions have faced this challenge in the aftermath of inflammatory remarks made by President Donald Trump. The stories of how the leaders negotiated a response may be illuminating to leaders facing similar struggles.
Trump blames “many sides”
After a counter-protestor was killed and others were injured during a white- supremacist rally the weekend of August 11 in Charlottesville, Va., Trump was widely criticized for failing at first to denounce the white nationalists leading the rally and for stating publicly that “many sides” were to blame for the violence.
In the wake of Trump’s remarks, members of his two business advisory councils, the Strategic and Policy Forum (SPF) and the Manufacturing Jobs Initiatives (MJI), faced pressure to respond. On August 14, Merck & Co. CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned from the MJI, citing Trump’s failure to clearly denounce racism. Trump responded by attacking Frazier on Twitter. Several other members of both business councils also resigned.
On August 15, Trump doubled down on his initial statement, saying during a press conference that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the rally.
Although the councils had met infrequently and accomplished little of substance, they arguably presented leaders with opportunities to persuade Trump to follow their policy proposals. But for some, Trump’s seeming tolerance of white-nationalist violence was “a bridge too far,” according to the New York Times. Blackstone Group CEO Stephen A. Schwarzman, a confidant of Trump and the policy forum’s chair, contacted Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and advisor, to tell him the forum was collapsing.
Agreeing to disband
The following morning, Laurence D. Fink, the CEO of asset manager BlackRock, called the CEOs of several prominent companies, including PepsiCo and Walmart, to tell them he had decided to resign from the SPF and to encourage them to join him, the Times reports.
Later that day, a dozen members of the SPF, including CEOs from some of the nation’s top companies, dialed in to a conference call to discuss what to do. Schwarzman, as the moderator, gave each person a chance to speak. Former Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, Jr., and former General Electric CEO Jack Welch favored releasing a statement condemning the president’s remarks but keeping the group intact. Yet most SPF members, including Fink and PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, favored dissolving the group.
IBM CEO Virginia M. Rometty, under pressure from her employees to exit the SPF, recommended that the group “condemn and disband,” a phrase that “drew broad backing,” according to theTimes. Soon the executives had decided to disband the forum.
Trump apparently learned of the mass defection before it could be announced; he tweeted that he was ending both the SPF and the MJI to avoid “putting pressure” on members. Some former council members disputed that characterization and condemned Trump’s remarks on Charlottesville.
In the NFL, agreeing to disagree
In late September, National Football League (NFL) team owners found themselves in a similar predicament as the White House business advisory council members after Trump repeatedly criticized NFL players who refused to stand for the national anthem and, in crude terms, suggested those who refused should be fired. In the days ahead, many team owners defended their players, with some “taking a knee” or standing in solidarity with those protesting the anthem at NFL games. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement supporting the players and saying the league “fundamentally could not disagree more” with Trump, the Wall Street Journal reports.
But in a tense meeting that followed, NFL team owners disagreed about whether to continue to engage in the president’s war of words. Some argued that an ongoing feud would drive away fans; others said Trump’s continual remarks demanded continued indictment. The league decided to leave players to defend themselves for the time being and to address the issue of whether to require players to stand for the national anthem at their fall meetings on October 17 and 18.
3 guidelines for coming together
Cut-and-dried solutions are rarely apparent when a group is trying to come to consensus on a dispute involving values, but here are three general guidelines to consider:
1. Give all members a voice. When people believe they have had a chance to speak and be heard in a group decision- making process, they are more likely to abide by the group’s ultimate decision, even if they disagree with it.
2. Involve outside parties, too. Beyond members of the immediate group, the voices of interested outsiders should also be included in the debate. For the business council members, that meant their employees and customers. For the NFL, that means both players and fans.
3. Look for a solution that balances group interests. There’s a fine line between adhering to your principles and getting mired in an ongoing, destructive conflict. For the CEOs, disbanding their groups allowed them to both separate themselves from Trump’s remarks and disengage from him. As for the NFL owners, they will have to individually and jointly weigh their personal beliefs, their views on Trump, and their business concerns—but there may be a way to balance these seemingly competing interests.