Drowning in Politics: Historically, corporate leaders have had to navigate through political waters. A look back may provide a way forward for directors.

Author:Milford, Maureen

Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg thought he was speaking privately to company employees at an internal all-hands meeting in July when he railed against a plan backed by Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren to break up the tech giants.

"So there might be a political movement where people are angry at the tech companies or are worried about concentration or worried about different issues and worried that they're not being handled well," Zuckerberg says, according to a transcript of a leaked audio published by The Verge in October. "But look, at the end of the day, if someone's going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight."

Compare that to 61 years ago when an executive at Gulf Oil wrote a letter to employees and shareholders about the company's plan to play hardball in opposing socialism and organized labor, a force he considered an existential threat.

"If we are to survive, labor's political power must now be opposed by matching force," wrote Gulf senior vice president Archie Gray, according to a September 1958 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Gray knew this constant corporate truism: that "Gulf and every other American corporation is in politics--up to its ears in politics."

But what has varied over time is the dynamics of how business plays the game--as lone combatants or as a team sport. Historically, big business in America often worked collectively to affect public policy, but grew more individually oriented toward the end of the last century, according to Michael Useem, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School.

Now, as companies navigate today's highly charged political and social moment, directors in accordance with their oversight responsibilities will need to determine when it's prudent to go it alone or better to join hands with their peers on political issues. This decision will be particularly important with the growing narrative that business is responsible for a variety of societal ills, from the opioid epidemic to poverty.

Shifting Winds

For much of the 20th century business often spoke as a group through a network of a few large corporations. That changed with the rise in focus on the maximization of shareholder value. By the 1980s, corporate political participation began transitioning into more of an individual activity among S&P 500 companies, Useem explains.

But actions undertaken this year seem to indicate business is moving toward more collective political action, he adds. In August, more than 180...

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