Are you an activist leader?

One of the more interesting (or at least, less expected) takes on leadership recently can be found in a People Management podcast: What if… CEOs were activists? It’s an interesting discussion that takes in CEO and leadership attitudes and responsibilities towards activism from the perspective of corporate social responsibility, “giving something back”, and environmental-social-governance (ESG) objectives. Amongst the contributions, it seems that such ‘activism’ is more than a ‘nice thing to do’, it also makes business sense. But switch the CEO’s viewpoint from external to internal and maybe a better question is, Why aren’t CEOs activists?

What do we mean by activism?

First, a quick sense-check because ‘activism’ is one of those words that is used so often we all think we know what it means, but different people may have very different interpretations.

Let’s go with the Cambridge Dictionary, in which activism is, “the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one.”

It’s campaigning, it’s speaking out, it’s action and words with the goal of change; and that change – whether it’s climate-related, narrowing the gender pay gap, Black Lives Matter (to name just three high-profile examples) is about making things better.

Leaders as internal activists?

Usually, organisational outreach, CSR goals, or any other form of CEO-involved activism is focused on the outside world – the wider context in which a business operates. But what about inside the business? What about the very people the leaders are leading?

From the CIPD podcast, Danny Mortimer, CEO of government agency NHS Employers, says, “You do the job because you want to make a difference… Leaders need to speak out on behalf of the people they employ, the people they serve.”

Fair point. After all, which set of leadership values or which kind of leader says it’s okay NOT to speak up and out on behalf of the people they are responsible for?

Leadership comes with responsibility. Whether you’re a CEO or a frontline team leader, you have authority, power and control (a platform, if you like) compared to the rest of the team. What are you using it for?

You ask (and expect) people to trust you with leading the company or team in which they spend the majority of their waking hours. And in return for that support, they are entitled to expect you to support them – the leadership relationship is never one-way.

If you’re still feeling a bit twitchy about being labelled an ‘activist’, consider some recent – and very obvious – examples of leaders who are explicitly NOT supporting their people: rail company bosses. As rail workers strike over pay and conditions, company profits are up and in some cases (FirstGroup’s Avanti West Coast and Transpennine Express) C-level leaders have awarded themselves pay rises of up 275%.

Issues facing most UK workers

Meanwhile, the average UK worker is facing significant pressure and change:

  • The current cost of living crisis, high inflation, rising energy bills, etc.
  • Increased remote/hybrid working arrangements as a result of the pandemic, involving different ways of working, interacting with colleagues and customers (in other words, huge changes to how they carry out their jobs, and to how those jobs are managed).
  • Reduced job security (so far in 2023, the press is reporting increasing layoffs – ONS figures show redundancies now at pre-pandemic levels) and fewer vacancies on the job market.

The challenges for a leader interested in supporting their team include leading at a distance, engaging scattered and remote employees, addressing the impact of skyrocketing cost of living, and ensuring the workforce is agile and future-ready (all highlighted themes for this year’s International Leadership Week).

Activist leadership? Being prepared to use your influence to ensure better conditions and treatment for the whole workforce. Those outward-facing ESG and social responsibility objectives? Putting the company’s weight behind big, important global issues? That’s all excellent stuff. But if you say and do all the right things externally and don’t at least do the same for your own people, it starts to look and feel like a PR or branding exercise. Always remember to be an advocate for your own people.


For more on leadership, check out Maximum Performance’s Inspiring Leader Programme; or give us a call on 01582 463460. We’re here to help.

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