From The Editor | February 1, 2023

Choosing Your Battles

By Ben Comer, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader

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Should business leaders speak out on the social and political issues that intermingle with the buying and selling of goods and services? Does it matter what kind of business it is, how many individuals it employs, or who ultimately purchases and uses its products? When is the right and wrong time to wade in?

Opinions vary widely on these questions, and that is okay. There are always risks involved with taking a position; if everyone agreed, there wouldn’t be a position to take. However, the stakes do seem higher now. Business leaders provide jobs, pay taxes, and work to influence regulatory policies in ways that comport with the business’s financial objectives and its values. That work is increasingly open to interpretation and criticism, which can impact financial value, in terms of attracting new investment, customers, or talent.

A recent New Yorker profile of Vivek Ramaswamy, the founder and former CEO of Roivant Sciences (he was on the cover of Life Science Leader’s April 2017 issue), documents his frustration with corporate virtue signaling and the publication of Ramaswamy’s provocatively titled book, Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam, released in August 2021. Ramaswamy is against CEOs as social justice actors but fails to adequately acknowledge — at least in the New Yorker profile — the role that corporations play in shaping legal policy, both by lobbying current members of Congress and collaborating with their staff on regulatory policy, as well as campaign spending during elections.

The profile ultimately gets at a larger question that leaders must ask themselves: How can individual companies, which represent differing and sometimes opposing viewpoints and sell products across political lines, effectively act as “good” citizens? I don’t think it makes sense, in 2023, for company leaders to focus exclusively on obeying the law and generating profits. It is true that Americans remain sharply divided on several important issues, and Congress doesn’t always succeed in representing the majority will of the people. But corporations aren’t neutral players in society; their tax bases and employment opportunities are too important to politicians and regular citizens.

The wrong question to ask, I think, is, “Who will be harmed [a risk] by saying or doing nothing in response to unfairness, inequity, or environmental degradation?” It’s better to ask who will be helped by saying or doing something, also a risk but one easily justified if it reflects an authentic company value or ideal. Pragmatism is the American philosophy, and it speaks to the responsibility of everyone, corporate leaders included, to work toward a better tomorrow. There will always be disagreements about how to get there, but you have to play to win.