Prof Hari Tsoukas of Warwick Business School dissects a controversial protest against racial injustice to highlight the role of responsible leadership at individual and corporate levels.
Related research: “When taking a moral stand is worth the risk for leaders”, Haridimos Tsoukas.
On 18th September 2016, football fans thronged at the Bank of America Stadium in North Carolina, all charged up to witness a nail-biting game between the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers. But what was not anticipated was the drama that unfolded even before the game had begun. Two of the San Francisco 49ers – Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid – refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem. They knelt down as a protest against racial injustice and police brutality. Not surprisingly, this sparked quite a fierce backlash from football fans, the allegedly patriotic media, and even the President himself. Reid and Kaepernick had unleashed a wave of massive frenzy upon themselves: how were they planning to handle it?
Taking the road less travelled
Racial discrimination has long permeated American society, and this was not the first time that athletes have stepped forward to take a stand against such injustice. But this time, the protest somehow got rebranded as a protest of the American flag and came to be regarded as a sign of disrespect towards the country and its armed forces. President Trump urged the NFL (National Football League) to suspend or fire players involved in the protest. When the NFL dropped both players from league matches, Kaepernick and Reid filed a collusion grievance against the NFL, accusing the organisation of blacklisting them.
Fast forward to the next season, and we see Reid getting reinstated and signing up for the Carolina Panthers. On the other hand, however, our star quarterback with a huge fan following decides to take the road less travelled. Colin Kaepernick refused all offers, including a lucrative opportunity to join the Alliance of American Football. He decided to stay on and fight the power and influence of the NFL head on.
Kaepernick faced two clear choices in the aftermath of the controversy. He could either play it safe and stick to his profession in the strictly technical sense – or march ahead with the protest he had set into motion by ‘taking the knee.’ It is highly improbable that the world would have blamed him had he chosen to turn his back on the issue and conform. After all, Kaepernick is a footballer and not a politician. But Kaepernick chose to show moral imagination and stand up for his values and beliefs. Being a footballer was not simply a question of technical expertise for him but, more broadly, living a certain sort of life – a life in which football is played in a society where equality prevails.
Nike reignites the controversy
In 2018, sports equipment manufacturer Nike sent massive shockwaves through the media by featuring Colin Kaepernick in its 30th anniversary ad campaign. The “Just Do It” TV commercials, print and digital pieces featured a series of uncompromising role models including Serena Williams, LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick. Dramatic black-and-white close-ups of an unrepentant Kaepernick appeared across billboards and in magazines across the US alongside the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”
This added a new twist to the moral leadership debate. Nike’s public support for Kaepernick resulted in an immediate fall of 3.9% in the value of the company’s shares. It provoked a Twitter storm including several tweets from the President himself. One of Trump’s particularly fuming tweets read: “Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder whether they had any idea it would be this way? So far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!” The hashtag #NikeBoycott went viral along with messages from people saying they were going to burn their Nike sneakers or cut the swoosh logo off their socks – all because Nike had chosen to defend Kaepernick’s cause.
But here’s the point. Although sales dipped initially, they bounced back soon enough. By mid-September Nike’s stock had reached an all-time high. It started posting substantial gains in sales revenues too. Clearly there was a group of customers who could identify with Nike’s stance and contributed to the cause in their own way through the purchase of Nike products. Since the “Just Do It” campaign was launched in September 2018, Nike’s online sales have taken off and have, so far, risen 31% according to a leading e-commerce analyst.
Nike’s decision affirmed Kaepernick’s position and strengthened his hand in the ongoing collusion lawsuit against the NFL, since Nike happens to be the governing body’s main corporate partner since 2012. But the most important outcome was probably the fact that as the focus of the debate shifted to the corporate world, it polarised public opinion and re-opened the debate over racial discrimination. In February, the NFL and Kaepernick settled their long-running dispute out of court. Taking into account lost salary and legal costs incurred, the athlete’s settlement could have been in the region of tens of millions of dollars. The NFL’s president of communication and public affairs issued the following statement: “We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities. The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”
Moral leadership as a corporate master stroke
Nike took an uncompromising moral stand by featuring Kaepernick in its advertising campaign. While this sparked some outrage in the beginning, there were also a lot of people who identified with Nike’s decision. This goes to show that when a company takes on a leadership role which combines moral imagination with moral responsibility, it can make a positive difference to public perceptions. In the end, it was a risk worth taking for Nike because it strengthened its brand image by highlighting the company’s values yet again.
Nike’s position was that it wanted to unite people, not to divide them. And the company saw that the best way of achieving this was to take an unbending stand, which, over time, would replace the immediate outrage over Kaepernick’s principled protest. A lot of companies fail to understand that decision-making is not just about calculated reasoning and weighing up pros and cons. Had that been the case, all decisions could very well be taken by robots. A decision expresses an existential outlook – how you see your role in your work. Sometimes, it is necessary to take a leap of faith based on strong moral considerations – just like Nike did. Kaepernick’s and Nike’s principled stance widens our sense of professional and business responsibility – it is not only what we do but, more critically, why we do it.
Sacrificing values is never an option
Kaepernick’s dispute with the NFL tells us that there are no unambiguous distinctions between having strongly held personal beliefs and expressing them in public. This young man redefined his role as an athlete by taking moral considerations into account. Kaepernick and Reid are much more than team players: they undertook a leadership responsibility. Their high profile protest encapsulates the concept of moral responsibility and should serve as a shining beacon not just for other athletes and black people, but also for employees in any organisation. Irrespective of our professions, we must learn to probe ourselves with the question “How am I fulfilling my role?”
Nike took a moral stand, just like these two athletes, with its campaign featuring Kaepernick. It was quite a gamble and they had undoubtedly anticipated that the campaign’s ripple effect would include a boycott from the opposition. But they took a calculated risk and the campaign ultimately solidified Nike’s dedicated customer base. This goes to show that purpose can never be driven away from business or any job. Insofar as this is the case, purpose forces leaders to think about values, responsibility and, ultimately, the meaning of life.
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