First let me say that I strongly support equal marriage (and other) rights for same gender loving couples. That’s my personal position and it’s the position of my company (which in my case is the same thing). So, what is the issue with the CEO of Chik-Fil-A coming out strongly against gay marriage? Besides my basic philosophical disagreement with his position on the issue itself, I think it was dumb public relations and thoughtless leadership. There was no evidence that the CEO was taking a company stand when he spoke, differentiating his own personal viewpoint from the marketing, community relations and business development interests of the business. He seemed to be using his “bully pulpit” as a corporate CEO to advance a personal point of view. This is usually a bad idea. On the other hand, I generally advocate candor from leaders on any other topic, so why does this one cause me some hesitation? Is it because I disagree with the underlying position? Is it because it was so obviously a bad PR move? Should this CEO have kept his personal views to himself?
Here’s a way to look at it: any senior executive will have views on a wide range of topics, some of which are directly relevant to the business he or she is responsible to lead, some of which are irrelevant and some of which are relevant only to the cultural context in which the business operates. Some of these topics are controversial in the public sphere; as were domestic partner benefits in the 1980′s for instance. When a corporate leader speaks on one of these controversial topics, he or she steps into the broader public arena. This move puts some of the business’s reputation in play, either for good or for ill. Doing so consciously, either to advance a social cause or to associate the business with a movement can link business interests with social interests. Doing so unconsciously is reckless and self-serving. Candor on relevant topics that intersect with the interests of the business is the duty of an senior executive. On irrelevant issues, it’s blather. On socially controversial issues, you’d better line up your business interests first, get clear about the reputation bet you are making and then decide whether to open your mouth in front of a microphone.