CEOs and Egos: Resisting the Urge to Speak Out


It takes a huge ego to be a CEO. That fact can serve a business executive well when it comes to making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. It can also be a curse when CEOs think people will believe anything they say and do anything they say to do.

Donald Trump will be the first to tell us, “I’m a really smart guy,” so he spouts off on everything from sex appeal to the president’s birthplace. Jack Welch accuses the U.S. president of cooking the books on unemployment numbers, but can’t prove it. Chick-Fil-A executive Dan Cathy uses his position to evangelize and to promote a conservative Christian political agenda.

Now several CEOs of privately held companies are threatening their employees with unemployment if they vote to re-elect President Obama. First it was David Siegel, a gazillionaire who is most famous for building the largest private residence in the United States. Then it was billionaires Charles and David Koch, who claim no party affiliation but sent employees a flyer with a list of candidates — all Republicans — who should get employees’ votes.

Most recently, the Nordstrom brothers have announced their support for gay marriage. Apparently they believe the world has been waiting with great anticipation for them to make their views known on this social issue.

As I’ve written before, CEOs need to learn to keep their mouths shut when it comes to making statements on highly polarizing social and political issues, unless those issues have a direct impact on their businesses. The risk of alienating a large segment of their companies’ markets is too great. The cost of putting out the fires that inevitably erupt as a result of their statements is too high. There is little to be gained except having their names in the news for a day or two, and even then there’s a good chance half the people tuning in will view the story negatively.

In addition, CEOs should consider the impact on employees. At a time when companies need employees to be fully engaged to help the business succeed, doing anything to add hostility and stress to the work environment is not a good idea. The CEOs who recently have spoken out on the presidential election might say they’re not trying to strong-arm their employees concerning a most sacred private decision, but perhaps they should ask employees how they feel. I’ll bet many employees wish the boss had kept his opinions to himself.

Yes, these CEOs have every right to speak out on politics, social and religious issues, and anything else about which they feel strongly. But that doesn’t make it a good business decision.

One could also argue that the economy is a legitimate issue on which CEOs should speak out, but there are better, less divisive ways to do it. John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, a group that represents the CEOs of America’s largest corporations, recently called on both parties in Congress to compromise on tax cuts, spending cuts and revenues. He made a compelling case for legislators to work together, explaining that economic uncertainty is hampering hiring, investments and sales. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein added that a bipartisan deal would have a “huge” positive impact on the economy.

No threats. No intimidation. No mouthing off. Just a sensible, nonpartisan call for elected officials to work together to solve the nation’s economic problems.

It’s time for CEOs to realize most people don’t really care what they think about anything except the things that directly affect them, to wit: the Nordstroms should focus more on providing great customer service than speaking out on gay marriage.

And if CEOs just can’t resist the urge to say something, make sure it’s at least marginally relevant to employees’ well-being or customers’ concerns.

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