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Signals and virtue

Bill Coffin | August 21, 2017

On August 12, dozens of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and various other members of the so—called alt-right attended a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee. The rally, organized by noted white supremacist Ricard Spencer, turned violent, culminating in a shocking act of vehicular homicide when an alt-right marcher rammed his car into a thick crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring dozens more.

 

After intense pressure to say something about the violence, President Trump held a press conference on August 14 in which he did not call out white supremacy or neo-Nazism. Politically speaking, this is the lowest-hanging fruit one could ask for: simply denounce hatred, bigotry, and prejudice; note that it isn’t welcome in this country; and call for unity. This is what any other President in living memory would have done. Instead, President Trump blamed violence on both sides, noted there were some “fine” people at the march, and went on to talk about why it is wrong to tear down beautiful monuments to Confederate heroes. You could practically hear the cringing from the White House staff with each and every word.

 

But there was more than cringing, especially within the Manufacturing Council and the Strategy & Policy forum, two of the President’s business advisory groups formed to help boost American business and job creation. Within 48 hours of Trump’s press conference, so many CEOs had resigned from the Council and the Forum—or were about to—that Trump disbanded both groups. The Council was already down to just under half its strength, with 11 of the 14 missing members having resigned over Trump’s Charlottesville comments. Likewise, the Forum had prepared a statement to disband on its own, butTrump caught wind of it and disbanded the group first.

 

The various CEOs who left these groups made their own statements as to why, often calling out Trump’s Charlottesville commentary specifically. Mark Weinberger, global chairman and CEO of EY, and a member of the Strategy & Policy Forum, might have said it best when he tweeted, “Hatred, bigotry & violence have no place in society; leaders need to unite not divide. Proud of the Forum members. We made the right call.”

 

When people make a public display of their principles, critics sometime call that “virtue signaling,” the cynical practice of publicly stating one’s moral bona fides with the aim of improving their standing within a certain group. It would be easy for critics to say the same of these business leaders who President Trump himself derided as “grandstanders.” Those critics, however, would be deeply mistaken.

 

As this whole scene illustrates, tone at the top is not just a feel-good catchphrase or a squishy benchmark for gauging an organization’s sense of ethics and compliance. Tone at the top matters. Tone at the top has real results. Good, strong, ethical tone at the top is that wellspring from which an entire organization might better direct itself. Without it, an organization can become rudderless or stray from the path of legal and ethical practice.

 

In this case, we have one example of indefensible tone at the top that hasn’t just upset people, it has destroyed important working relationships between government and business. But we also have another example of tone at the top, a collective message from business leaders who understand what it means to put their ethics into practice, to set a high standard for themselves and their organizations to follow. That is a real signal. And that is real virtue.