Beautiful Business in a Time of War

Business and Ukraine: Take a hard stance, but soften your culture

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a watershed moment not only for the geopolitical order but also for business. After decades of struggling with finding proper responses to dynamic social norms, and wavering in light of ethically questionable clients and practices, it seems as if business has finally woken up to a world that demands it pick a side and take action.

The consistency and swiftness of big business’ response (e.g. McDonalds, Starbucks, Mastercard, and even oil giant Halliburton pulling out of Russia) may be surprising, but the new political responsibility is as much the logical result of previous instances of moral outrage as it is the product of a unique historic moment. In the wake of MeToo, Black Lives Matter, COVID, and The Great Resignation (or Reshuffling), companies find themselves under enormous pressure to satisfy the moral expectations of both their workforce and customers. This includes adopting more flexible work schedules, creating hybrid workspaces, and keeping to sustainable and climate-positive standards—but also a heightened political responsibility that views business as an ever more important steward of democracy.

The corporate world has long acknowledged the importance of “giving back” as a way of earning the public’s goodwill and moral license to operate. Moreover, it has increasingly been forced to take part in the “culture wars” over cultural identities and social justice, with a company like Salesforce relocating employees in protest against the Texas abortion bill, Delta Air Lines eliminating an NRA member discount after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, or most recently, Disney (at last) opposing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, to name a few examples in the U.S. Silence is not an option either. After Basecamp’s management team banned discussions about social and political issues, some 30 percent of their employees resigned. Clearly, the phenomenon of “woke corporations” and “corporate statesmanship” is not without controversy (CEOs are still torn on whether to take a public stand on controversial social issues or not), but it is here to stay.

The Ukraine crisis, however, is of a different dimension. Shareholder considerations lose their front-row seat altogether when our entire civilization is at stake due to the threat of nuclear destruction. Along with climate action, now more than ever, companies must assume responsibility to actively promote, shape, and embody the tenets of free, democratic societies at global scale. Being political is no longer a choice, it is the norm.

Business must shift from “humanizing”—a risk-free endeavor readily embraced by brands—to the much riskier mission of preserving and cultivating humanity.

This will take more than the initial surge to act. It will require moral imagination grounded in empathy, a dialogue with the “other,” and a thorough reflection of business language and culture. The Great Cancellation must be followed by a Great Reconciliation. Complementing their hard stance on Putin and other perpetrators, companies should seize this opportunity to soften inside. In addition to calling out the ugly, they must become more beautiful.

Here are three ways to do so:

1. Critically reflect on your own demeanor

Putin’s behavior is inexcusable, but it is not a singular aberration. It is the consequence of a decades, if not centuries-old macho-masculine worldview in politics and business that divides the world into winners and losers, and legitimizes any means needed to achieve “success.” It is reflected in the language of business, which is often aggressive and borrowed from military conflict (“killing it,” “guerilla marketing,” “blown away”), as well as in our glorification of leadership traits such as “decisive” or “assertive.”

Now is a good time to reassess our own language and behavior as leaders and managers, and for companies to create space for candid conversations about how we can compromise, concede ground, admit mistakes, or prevent our convictions from becoming ideologies at the workplace. It’s a delicate act: companies must juggle the moral clarity of absolute truths on the one hand with fostering a culture of non-binary truths on the other. Increasingly, business leaders must embrace ambiguity, complexity, and intersectionality.

They must recognize that even when they are on the right side of history, there are no easy answers or plain truths.

This requires a new brand of leadership. Kristina Lunz, co-founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, asks for a new feminism in politics and business that not only makes human rights, climate justice, and the rights of minorities a priority, but also removes the most sublime forms of aggression, oppression, and discrimination from the leader toolkit.

This approach is embodied by leaders like Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, who insists political leaders can be both empathetic and “strong,” and don’t have to be aggressive to have an impact. Or Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, who in a citizen town hall admitted she didn’t have the answer to a question she was asked, and that she had to think about it. Or Eva Karlsson, the CEO of Swedish outdoor retailer Houdini, who told us that during the first wave of the pandemic, she turned to her customers and asked them whether she should shut down all of Houdini’s marketing channels as they just seemed obscene in light of the suffering of so many people affected by COVID. She expressed her doubt and shared it openly with her customers, not afraid to seem weak or wavering. The customers’ vote was clear: they wanted the channels to stay open as they provided some much-needed distraction. But they appreciated her asking them.

The UN reports that female leaders have been more effective, cooperative, and socially inclusive during the pandemic. But feminist leadership should not be exclusive to one gender. We need all leaders to exhibit those qualities.

2. Engage with the “other”

Business is arguably the most important social space of our time. It connects people and products while forging avenues for common ground between both internal and external stakeholders. It is a bridge-builder and can thus be a peacemaker, helping detect and overcome polarization within its own ranks and society at large, as joint research by More in Common and the Boston Consulting Group suggests.

If we can do business with each other, we can be kind to each other.

Business is one of the few remaining arenas where we meet people who are unlike us. And if it is companies’ responsibility to be a conduit of dialogue with the other, then the ultimate other right now is Russia.

“Engagement or disengagement” is the perennial question when facing oppressive regimes or practices. Cancel culture has tipped the scale toward disengagement, and the cancellation of Russia is an expression of that. Peter Singer, a professor at the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University, put it this way: “No celebrity, let alone nation, has ever been more effective than Ukraine at calling out corporate brands to name and shame them into acting morally. If there is such a thing as ‘cancel culture,’ the Ukrainians can claim to have honed it in war.”

The implications are still unclear (there is the risk of creating another North Korea by cutting all channels of Western soft power), but in any case, the cutting of business operations in Russia must be balanced with a more nuanced stance on Russians and Russian culture.

The current narrative in Western media is dominated by an antagonistic, binary thinking of “us vs. them.” In a time when Netflix is boycotting Leo Tolstoy, we are seeing the opposite of the moral imagination and empathy we need. Business has an opportunity to remind us that we can move beyond this paradigm. Alongside research findings from organizations like More in Common on the need for a new sense of belonging, we’re reminded that democracy and its values are under threat—and that business can be a mediator where politics cannot. Companies have the chance to “call in” instead of calling out, as the social activist Lorreta J. Ross proposed in her response to cancel culture.

This means that business should of course continue to speak out in support of Ukraine and help Ukrainians, but refrain from fueling the fire, as Douglas Rushkoff argues: “Instead of adding more conflict and confusion to the crisis, we can help metabolize the trauma of our fellow beings. We are all connected, after all.”

Specifically, companies may cancel Russia, but they shouldn’t cancel Russians. That would mean generalizing and punishing all Russian people—including those who have courageously opposed the government and its actions, as well as many young soldiers who have been brainwashed and “tricked” into war. Today Russia is hemorrhaging tens of thousands of outward-looking young professionals, and this is a chance to lend them a hand and welcome new talent.

Companies should continue to enable dialogue and conversation, promoting a culture of understanding that refrains from snap judgments and counter-aggression by different means. For a total cancellation, a total deplatforming of Russians will only lead to more resentment, polarization, and pain.

3. Take care of your people

The war in Ukraine and the disruptions it is causing for our sense of civility are profound. While employees may be impressed with their leaders’ swift action, they are also experiencing extraordinary stress due to the doom and gloom around them. Doomscrolling is back, reminding workers of the early stages of the pandemic when control seemed to be slipping away.

It’s hard to believe in the future when the past invades your present.

So when social progress is denied or reversed, and the new reality taking shape in front of your eyes no longer feels like a historical aberration but a fundamental regression, it becomes difficult to believe in progress at all.

But progress—through the prism of mission statements and the means of economic growth—is the raison d’être for business. The Ukraine war may prompt companies to reflect on their moral choices and help them live up to their purpose, but it also puts the overall purpose of business in question. Companies should address these concerns, along with the strong and often mixed emotions their employees may experience, in town halls or more intimate conversations. Because now is the time to ask questions, to reflect on a company’s mission, and to create space for reorientation. Melissa Doman, author of Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work, advises employers to acknowledge what’s happening even if the crisis in Ukraine doesn’t seem to impact their business.

In moments like these, leaders and managers are needed as fellow humans and citizens with shared fears, uncertainties, and the emotional weight of more than two years of living in a pandemic. As such, they can open the space to ask (more) questions, share from their own position and experiences, and act from a place of care, stability, and understanding rather than performance pressure, efficiency, or minimizing the emotional reality of their employees. Through such spaces and small activities workers will be able to show their emotions, talk about them, and embody them.

We need dialogue, and especially tender dissent, which, in some instances, may start with an open discussion on whether or not a company is sharing a social media post tagged #StandWithUkraine.

Meditation, mindfulness, and body awareness—all of the rituals and practices that enhance mental health and well-being—are even more of a top priority now. Shared presence—in silence or in movement with each other—can do wonders when words are hard to find and language is in need of reinvention. It’s where we meet each other without our titles and masks.

While it’s great that companies have moved beyond purpose statements and virtue signaling, and have taken a position on an issue that matters to all of us, their hard stance must not lead to a hardening. More than ever, softness is a moral imperative, and beauty is of the essence. Calling out ugliness is critical and much needed, but only if business also enables inner peace, fosters small moments of connection, and upholds the utopian possibility of a different, better world, will it be beautiful. This—and not only economic pressure—is what constitutes the new political responsibility of business and its new civic commitment.

Tim Leberecht and Monika Jiang


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