Mar 16, 2020 - Economy

CEOs fill leadership void during coronavirus crisis

An illustration of a coffee cup with the American flag.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Last year we discussed the emergence of CEOs becoming America's new politicians, stepping into the national leadership void on issues like climate change and immigration. Or, in some cases, being shoved into that void.

Driving the news: This role reversal has manifested itself over the past week, as so many of our elected officials dithered.

Companies large and small closed their offices, instituting work from home policies or (in cases like pro sports leagues) temporary shutdowns. Most of this came well ahead of government directives.

Some large retailers like Apple closed their stores or altered their in-store services, like Starbucks. Again, usually ahead of government directives.

Many companies, including "nonemployers" like Uber and Lyft, initiated new sick leave policies, well ahead of the proposed federal sick pay package that the Senate didn't return over the weekend to vote on.

  • To be sure, not every company was proactive. Just like not all elected officials were behind the ball (Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker may go down in history as national heroes).
  • But each new office or store closure helped give cover to other companies to follow suit. And, arguably, lent courage to state and municipal politicians.

The big question last year was if CEOs were sincere when talking about their responsibility to all stakeholders, not just stockholders. Many have met that test when the rubber hit the revenue.

But, but, but: This is only a first step. It is encouraging that so many companies took early leadership, but those with resources must also become even more accommodating to their employees (particularly those whose kids are now home from school) and make sure not to leave nonsalaried employees behind.

  • For example, connected fitness company Peloton was one of those companies that shut its retail stores (initially for two weeks).
  • CEO John Foley tells me that it will pay retail employees for their scheduled hours over that break, will use its tech to help many of them work from home (i.e., interact with customers so they can earn commissions), and will offer all employees up to $100 per day in a "crisis" child care credit.

The bottom line: The coronavirus chaos has laid bare the countless holes in our economic safety nets. No amount of newfound corporate responsibility changes that nor forgives past sins.

  • But we don't always get to choose our leaders. And at least we have some, when all of us must be united in flattening the curve.
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