Like athletes, business leaders are changing the way they approach social issues
In “The Last Dance,” the 1998 Chicago Bulls documentary miniseries that gave viewers in the spring of 2020 a weekly dose of sports the pandemic had taken away, Michael Jordan revealed his unforgettable line on Republican shoes was a joke.
His words came during a Senate race between incumbent North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, a stalwart of white supremacy, and challenger Harvey Gantt – a black Democrat who the basketball star’s mother asked for her son to do a public service announcement. Around the same time, activists were boycotting Nike, which was paying Jordan tens of millions of dollars to wear shoes bearing his name, while sweatshop workers in Southeast Asia were being paid a pittance for sewing expensive shoes marketed aggressively to children whose families could barely afford them. To justify his relative silence in these political scrums, Jordan — who was arguably the most recognized public figure on the planet — joked, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
He may have meant to make his statement jokingly, but Jordan’s position seriously reflected the distance between corporate discourse and political discourse at the time. As a representative of a major corporate brand, he sought to stay away from political debate so as not to risk alienating some of his clientele.
After 2020, expectations for corporate political activism have changed, especially for mainstream brands. Those who don’t take a political stance on racial justice and economic inequality arguably risk alienating their consumers and investors even more than those who do. Jordan’s heir as the greatest basketball player on the planet, LeBron James, refuses to acquiesce to critics who tell him to ‘shut up and dribble’, using the criticism as an opportunity to speak out about the right to voting and Black Lives Matter.
Why have the expectations of companies and their representatives to engage in political activism changed so much in such a short time? There is no simple answer to this question, but a general trend over the past few decades has been a “value shift” from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism. The former emphasized profit maximization, while the latter suggests that corporations may have a socially beneficial purpose that affects a broad community interested in shared value, and not just shared value.
Some of the same forces that underlie how stakeholder capitalism has become a more reliable route to profit maximization contribute to corporate political activism. These forces include a blurring of boundaries between the public and private sectors, the emergence of social media technologies, and a growing sense of political urgency.
For better or for worse, the public and private sectors are not as separate as these labels suggest. At best, the relationship between them is complementary; the government enacts economic and social policy that companies pursue in the form of funding and job creation projects to develop safe vaccines and cleaner cars. At worst, their relationship can degenerate into corruption.
As we have learned, social media can both inform and misinform. Tech companies that let the genie out of the bottle have unexpected political power to sway public opinion and a concomitant vulnerability for their platforms to be hijacked. Corporate users of their platforms are also drawn into the political debate when their moves and statements become available for immediate and universal criticism.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, corporate political involvement responds to a growing awareness that meaningful change is needed to right past and present wrongs. These include the mistreatment of Black Americans by law enforcement and the inequalities perpetuated by the structures of everyday organizational life, as well as the mistreatment of the environment by industrial activity that threatens our future. The growing concern over these issues has been met by the increasing audacity of some public figures to discriminate and deny, demanding answers from citizens and conscientious societies.
What must companies do to be part of the political and practical solution to our challenges? To begin the historical recovery process, many organizations first look to business behaviors that may be within their control, examine the biases implicit in their ranks, and promote diversity and inclusion in their hiring practices and also among the companies they choose as vendors.
As these practices suggest, political discourse and activity transcend organizational boundaries to participate in the market system. Moreover, the purpose of business goes beyond profit to its fundamental reason for being, manifesting through action the ends of which profit is only the means.
Even in a politically divided society and workplace, a credible organizational purpose has the potential to transcend individual differences. Working towards a common goal requires the opportunity for each employee to see how work that has personal meaning for them can contribute to something bigger than themselves: improving the work environment, making the world that better surrounds and enable material and meaningful good. -be themselves, their families and their communities.
Both from the University of St. Thomas, Christopher Michaelson is Professor and Academic Director of the Melrose and the Toro Company Center for Principled Leadership; Yohuru Williams is a professor of history and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative.