Beware personal crusades in leadership: they should never swamp strategy

Using passion and personal experiences in leadership to boost a company’s profile is admirable – but it has its limitations

We’ve heard a lot about personal crusades in leadership lately. The EU Referendum campaign was defined by them. David Cameron fully identified himself with the effort to Remain in the trading bloc of 500 million citizens, opposed by a Leave side nominally fronted by Tories Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – but much more personally linked with the ambitions of UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who has sought Britain’s exit for years.

Now we are dealing with the fallout of those crusades. With the UK voting by a margin of 52% to 48% to quit the Union, the delicate legal and regulatory surgery that will be required to formally separate the country from the continent’s infrastructure could well dominate the political and economic agenda for the next four or five years. It all goes to show that leadership packs one mighty, powerful punch when there are personal attachments at stake.

The Leave campaign can now continue its quest to reshape modern Britain’s relationship with Europe. Cameron, though, has been forced to announce his resignation, little more than a year after he stood on the same spot of Downing Street to hail a surprise, majority win in the 2015 General Election. The emotion of his announcement – the sour endgame of arduous negotiations that Cameron had conducted with EU officials so that he could ‘sell’ Europe to the UK electorate – was unmistakeable.

“You win some and you lose some.” And then some. As the vote demonstrates, sometimes only the narrowest of margins stands between a personal victory and a personal defeat.

Lifestyle choices
What we can learn from this is that the personal crusade in leadership is very much a double-edged sword. As it says on some medicines, “results may vary”. This is particularly relevant to the business world, where firms must carefully construct stories of success that show them to be upright corporate citizens, rather than runaway trains driven by maverick impulses.

You hear a lot about personal crusades from bosses. For example:

  • In this Fortune profile from 2011, former McDonald’s US chief Jan Fields explains her personal crusade to make her company’s menu healthier. This emerged directly from her experience of living an unhealthy lifestyle that she eventually managed to turn around – so her change of self-image was reflected in McDonald’s unexpected culinary shift to oatmeal, parfait and smoothies.
  • In this Business Insider piece from February, Heineken UK chief David Forde is described as being on a crusade to promote moderate drinking, on the grounds that it is better not just for people’s lifestyles, but for the beverages sector as a whole. “The business thinking is very simple,” he explained. “We will only sustain our industry if people enjoy our products responsibly.”

In both those cases, the leadership crusade was on target. Faced with mounting concerns that McDonald’s hadn’t done enough to modernise its products for a more health-conscious market, Fields made some much-needed changes fuelled by her own experience. And in standing by his personal belief that Heineken is not synonymous with – in his words – “getting people wasted”, Forde burnished the brand’s credentials for corporate citizenship in an industry that many have criticised for not doing enough to encourage moderation.

However, there are times when even a leadership crusade stemming from the best of intentions can backfire on a firm – especially if it leads staff into sensitive waters that they have never been trained to navigate.

Wrong direction
In December 2014, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, his board team, senior managers and scores of office staff held an unusual meeting on the ninth floor of the firm’s Seattle HQ. The topic for discussion: not the purchase of a new coffee plantation, or the launch of a new beverage product, or even a change of management structure – but race relations.

Schultz had been badly shaken by media coverage of unrest in the Missouri town of Ferguson late that summer, to the extent that he’d found it hard to sleep. His firm had already chalked up a series of financial initiatives and social stances designed to prove to the corporate world that there was more to doing business as a blue-chip multinational than simply stacking up profits – such as:

  • launching the small-business lending fund, Create Jobs for the USA;
  • backing same-sex marriage in Washington State, and
  • banning guns from stores – even in states with open-carry legislation.

In what was the first of six, top-level meetings on the subject, Schultz outlined his concerns about what he perceived as the deep, US racial divide that had given rise to Ferguson’s troubles. Following those talks, in March 2015, Starbucks – in partnership with USA Today – launched the ‘#racetogether’ campaign, whereby the paper would publish articles asking people to question their unconscious bias, while Starbucks baristas would write the hashtag on customers’ cups, and attempt to engage them in conversations about race.

It was an instant disaster. Starbucks social media feeds were blitzed by angry customers who were stunned at the brand’s simplistic approach to such a complex problem. One tweet from user @ReignOfApril – broadcast on a CBS news report – seemed to sum up the overall reaction, saying:

Casual activism
Much like our recent Brexit vote, the Starbucks campaign – driven by a personal crusade from a prolific crusader – led to some serious fallout, not to mention a spell of confusion. In the end, #racetogether was pulled after just one week, with the PR team saying, not entirely honestly, that it had only ever meant to be a short-term campaign. Schultz, meanwhile, went on the interview circuit, appearing in numerous print and online articles to explain his leadership rationale and smooth things over with baffled and alienated customers.

No matter how well intentioned #racetogether was, it had been drastically misjudged. By using his company’s brand in a socially crusading way – in other words, by sticking it on the point of a spear and pushing it, cavalry-charge style, into a tense debate – Schultz had ventured into an area that didn’t seem like the best fit for the relatively humdrum world of coffee houses: places where people may drop by for an hour or two to read expert political comment on their smartphones, but certainly wouldn’t expect to hear detailed analysis from the serving staff. Indeed, it’s a miracle that his decision to recast baristas as casual political activists didn’t go down even worse than it did.

Compare that to Jan Fields’ and David Forde’s leadership crusades, which were comfortably aligned with the ambitions of the firms they were representing. As leaders, their principled stances and use of personal experience helped to grant their brands fresh layers of corporate conscience – but very much restricted to the parameters of their industries, rather than overreaching into unfamiliar realms.

For further reading, I recommend checking out this 2010 article from the Harvard Business Review: a vividly imagined ‘thought-experiment’ centred around the director of a fictional manufacturer who decides to donate half of a large, company windfall to research into Batten’s disease, on the grounds that his daughter has just been diagnosed with the illness. It’s a fascinating – and very plausible – scenario that highlights the limits of personal crusades in leadership, and the various elements in a business that could either support or block them. If you don’t get something out of it, I would be very surprised!

Find out about the workplace areas where Inemmo can deliver change