The rise of the CEO activist

The rise of the CEO activist

May 8, 2016 by Stella Petrou Concha

I was recently rereading a 1998 book called The 48 Laws of Leadership and I was startled at how backwards the content was in comparison to new age leadership. The author Robert Greene suggests the idea that an individual needs to be ruthless, cunning and sneaky to be a component leader really got me thinking.

In recent years, I have been keeping a close eye on top organisational leaders in both the US and Australia and have seen the rise of a new phenomena, what researchers are calling the “Activist CEO”. But do great leaders and those in executive jobs care about other points-of-view, or are they focused on clinging to power, no matter what?

With leaders becoming more and more visible to society, can they afford to hide their opinions?

The financial effects of a CEO activist

Now, when we talk of activism, do not imagine a bunch of university students taking their first social science class who have vowed to make a difference. No, in this instance, we are talking about some of the most powerful men and women in world speaking on what they care about.

Yet, many people still believe that it’s always best for commercial leaders to keep their emotions and ideas close to their chest. However, recent research from the Harvard School of Business has pointed to a different conclusion.

The study looked at the impact of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s public opposition to religious freedom laws in the US. Researchers found that CEOs tend to have a similar ability to influence public opinion as politicians.

Yet, one of the most remarkable findings was that Tim Cook’s public statements actually increased consumer intentions to purchase Apple products. Additionally, his actions did not negatively affect  other consumers and drive them away from Apple goods and services.


Can leaders afford to be reserved in their opinion?
Can leaders afford to be reserved in their opinion?

Building social trust through emotional expression

What I am getting at is that unlike the Machiavellis of the world, CEOs, CFOs and people in management positions are not restricted by their role. Instead, they have the space and position to make a difference to their world and community and they can do so whilst increasing investor and customer value.

Those in positions of power need to ensure they’re not replicating the strategic power plays of the past, where CEOs used social issues to push their products and services and are instead leading with real opinions on real issues.

Of course, CEO activism will have its detractors. What we have to remember is that good leaders have the awareness to understand others’ needs and adjust their world-views to match.

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