Four weeks ago, Tim Cook sent an email to his employees explaining why he disagreed with President Trump’s statements following violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia.
He wrote: “What occurred in Charlottesville has no place in our country. Hate is a cancer and left unchecked it destroys everything in its path. It’s scars last generations.”
At the same time, Cook also donated $2 million to civil rights groups and announced Apple would twice match donate any contributions made by employees.
Other CEOs also made announcements. Jim Murren of MGM Resorts International said, “You have my commitment that we will vigorously and zealously continue to reject hate speech and hate-based actions in any form” and also offered to match fund employee donations to civil rights groups.
In fact, so many senior leaders resigned in protest from the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum that it could no longer function.
Fundamentally, do these actions and statements fundamentally change the agenda for CEOs and create a new requirement for senior business leaders to speak out against what is morally wrong, providing leadership to their employees?
The answer is yes, and no.
Firstly, the impact of these speeches can be surprisingly short lived.
Since August, the narrative has already moved quickly on, questioning whether indeed anything has changed.
Hurricanes have brought a natural type of violence. In the Far East, missiles have been launched, prompting another type of rhetoric. The economy has continued to rock the headlines and cause concern. New terrorist attacks have shaken communities, and now leaders in France and Germany are both questioning the benefit of open borders.
Apple itself has also moved on. Tim Cook’s human rights vision has been submerged under the discussion of the new range of iPhones and the many technologies that they include.
It was inspirational to see the bold steps taken by CEOs and senior leaders in the US promoting social justice and equality at a critical time when leadership was key.
How do we perpetuate this when events move on so quickly?
The first thing is that leaders need to recognise the influence that they can have.
As the leader of a business that often ranks as the largest company in the world, with a turnover that in 2015 already exceeded the GDPs of Hong Kong and of Finland, there is an enormous value when Apple’s CEO speaks out against hate and discrimination.
Tim Cook’s words made a difference, even if only temporarily. Even if only a small proportion of the over one billion users of Apple devices across the world pay attention, that is still a large number of people. Factor into that the over 100,000 Apple employees, plus the other hundreds of thousands of workers in businesses and activities that support Apple devices and the Apple business.
However, organisations of all sizes have enormous power to influence individuals. We all spend a large proportion of our time at work. Even if we work for ourselves, we interact with businesses. We can all help to drive change.
When we work for an organisation that does something good, we feel proud. When that company or one of its senior employees does something questionable, we feel embarrassed. What businesses do is noticed, remarked and acted upon.
I once worked delivered diversity and inclusion consultancy to a business in the Middle East whose turnover was 60 percent of the GDP of the country. The company recognised that it needed to improve both diversity and inclusion and welcomed our involvement.
Through the training, it became apparent that by changing the behaviours and attitudes of this one company, my team could actually change the outcomes for a much larger number of people in the country.
This is because companies that are diverse and inclusive create a powerful positive context for their customers, their suppliers and their business partners. They become aware that they should play a part in helping other organisations become more diverse and inclusive wherever possible.
One of the unmistakable traits of diverse and inclusive leaders is that they become positive advocates for equality and inclusion in all areas of their lives. They start to speak out when they see that they can be a part of improving how people are treated wherever they are.
The statements that Tim Cook and other CEOs in the US against the hatred in Charlottesville is part of a much larger movement that seeks to promote equality, understanding, inclusion and fair treatment for all.
They don’t necessarily change the agenda for CEOs, but they do signpost a path that senior leaders can take to increase their impact and become part of this positive change.
They are evidence that you can speak out against injustice one day and focus on launching your next product line the next, without interrupting or affecting business practice.