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Why CEO Statesmanship Matters

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In an era characterized by rapid technological advancements, shifting societal norms, and unprecedented global challenges, the voice of the CEO has emerged as a pivotal force—shaping not only the future of their organizations, but also the broader contours of society.

Historically, CEOs were primarily seen as stewards of their companies, tasked with maximizing shareholder value and ensuring the financial success of their organizations. Today's CEOs, on the other hand, are increasingly recognized as integral players on the world stage, with the power to iNFLuence public policy, societal norms, and even the course of global events. While public officials and civil society leaders continue to play essential roles, there is a growing expectation for CEOs to step forward, using their platforms to iNFLuence, prioritize, and drive meaningful change for the greater good.

It’s a phenomenon that I call CEO statesmanship; the idea that private sector leaders can use their platforms to sway public opinion, inspire action, and mobilize resources in ways that few others can. This is not merely a function of their economic power, but also of their ability to convene, to set agendas, and to iNFLuence a wide array of stakeholders including employees, customers, investors, and policymakers. From climate change and inequality to data privacy and ethical governance, the decisions made by corporations have far-reaching implications – and as the leaders of these entities, CEOs are uniquely positioned to advocate for change, not just within their organizations but across the global community.

But how should a CEO take on this role? How can they maximize their impact? How does a CEO separate flurries of activity from true leadership?

First, a CEO statesperson should be prepared to speak out on critical issues. With great power comes great responsibility— and the visibility of CEOs also gives them a responsibility to be informed and thoughtful. More than ever, CEOs are expected to share their views and express their values; to engage in national conversations and contribute to social progress. Saying nothing and aggressively avoiding the spotlight may feel safer—but a CEO who stands for nothing is dispensable. Hiding from stakeholders and from the public is a sure path to irrelevance.

Leaders, as the saying goes, lead.

Second, though, a CEO statesperson should lead with purpose. A CEO shouldn’t make a statement about every news headline, or take a position on every national challenge. Especially in recent years, we’ve seen the impact of oversaturation and statement fatigue. When leaders begin to opine on every topic, they will quickly find that they are expected to respond to issues over which they have no control and may have no expertise—a perfect recipe for missteps and the loss of authority.

So how does a CEO statesperson choose when to speak, and when to stay silent?

A CEO should consider the issues that especially impact their organization—either because of the sector in which they operate, or the communities in which their employees and other stakeholders are located. They should think about the subjects that matter to them personally because of their background or identity. They should pinpoint the specific ideas and values that move them as a leader. By focusing on initiatives and issues that resonate with their own knowledge, interests and values, they can make a meaningful contribution to the conversation—and ensure that they are taken seriously.

Finally, a CEO statesperson should act as a catalyst for change. Words matter—but one of the benefits of private sector leadership is the ability to take decisive action. If a CEO is passionate about diversity, they can invest in an outstanding DEI program. If they are energized by sustainability, they can implement internal programs to reduce their organization’s carbon footprint. Stakeholders can see the difference between lip service and genuine commitment. When a CEO decides to make a statement on a matter of public concern, it must be backed by concrete actions and a clear alignment with the company's values and operational practices.

That means fostering an internal culture that reflects the company's stated commitments. It means leveraging their resources and convening powers to bring together allies who are passionate about the same goals. By leading by example, CEOs can cultivate organizations that not only excel in their Business endeavors but also contribute positively to society – and drive others to do the same.

In our interconnected world, the ripple effects of a CEO's statements and actions can be profound. By prioritizing issues of public concern and leveraging their resources and convening power, CEOs have a unique opportunity to advance the common good. At a time when public trust in many institutions is wavering, the Business community—led by its CEOs—can offer a beacon of stability, ethical leadership, and forward thinking. By articulating a vision that transcends the bottom line to include societal well-being, CEOs can help bridge divides and build consensus on the path forward.

As we navigate the complexities of the 21st century, CEO statesmanship will matter more than ever. By speaking out on critical issues, leading with purpose, and acting as catalysts for change, CEOs can help steer society towards a more sustainable, equitable, and prosperous future.

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