Cancel Culture & the Board - Mark A. Pfister

6 min readApr 29, 2022

The Blurring Line Between Leadership and Activism

Love it or hate it, cancel culture is now firmly embedded in the modern global consumer mindset. It is now a common occurrence to see in-person protests calling for the boycott of a product or service, social media posts airing so-called dirty secrets experienced by a consumer, and even the threatening “what I’m going to do if you don’t align to my beliefs” declarations strategically placed across numerous noise platforms simultaneously. Cancel, cancel, cancel! You disagree with me and I’m angry about it! Acknowledge me or I’m going to start a revolution against you AND your company!

Somewhere in our recent history we have rerouted down a self-inflicted path dictating that we must, without additional thought, shun messages that divert from ‘acceptable’ beliefs. That we must refrain from purchasing products or services solely to “make a statement and stand up for our rights.” Even when there is only a sole information source, this seems to overwhelmingly be the only course of action for many today who want their voice to be heard. Having said this, I wanted to spend time to further (and fairly) think about this type of mindset and contemplate all angles, especially as it relates to a growing challenge for leaders, CEOs, and Board Directors. I’ve concluded that this topic requires much more thought and discussion in today’s boardrooms to ensure all risks are properly understood.

Becoming an Exceptional Board Director Candidate

I speak, write, and teach on the unwavering requirement of courage and grit for all leaders and Directors to have embedded in their DNA. 10 years ago this wouldn’t have even been a topic for discussion, however we are currently in a ‘courage drought’ in many boardrooms around the world — I see it first hand. It is as much disappointing as it is disturbing.

As it relates to this article, courage can fall on either side of the fence depending on a specific topic or someone’s conditioned viewpoint. For some leaders, courage correlates to pushing an organization’s decisioning processes down the path of activism alignment. For other leaders, courage correlates to guiding an organization away from decisions which align to activism and closer to unpolarizing outcomes. I commonly lean heavily in the latter classification as it relates to my belief that organizations, especially those with shareholders, take on much risk when too heavily infusing politics or activism in their resulting direction. I do, however, keep an open mindset and always weigh the inputs from all interested parties — something all leaders owe their shareholders as well as their stakeholders.

This leadership topic should not be misconstrued as a battle between ethical or unethical actions, nor pose the question of what ‘group’ to please vs. which one to reprimand. This is not the purpose nor mission of the vast majority of organizations and companies. In addition to the courage components in the evolving cancel culture saga, we have to also fully consider the economic and reputational impacts of taking a stand on a political or social issue. Boards should drive open dialogue with their CEOs on multiple topic areas to avoid misalignment or miscommunication, both internally and externally to the organization:

  • Live your organization’s values: Values = culture = risk level. Great leaders know that they must build, oversee, and protect the culture of their organizations, but the Board ultimately owns this responsibility.
  • Truly define your organization’s brand: Branding is not just what you sell, but also how you sell — and this includes the message attached to it. Will it be a positive long-term outcome to have your products or services aligned to a currently acceptable social cause? What about if this social cause falls out of favor?
  • Understand your consumers: Most companies have such diverse clientele that taking any political stance or activist position is bound to alienate a large contingency of your consumers. For many leaders, as well as their shareholders and stakeholders, this risk is simply too high.
  • Board/CEO alignment & communication: With some studies finding that a CEO’s reputation accounts for close to 50% of their company’s reputation and almost 50% of their company’s market value, a deep alignment between the Board and CEO on company stance and agreed messaging (or no messaging at all) on hot-button topics cannot be avoided. Shareholders and stakeholders expect this of the Board under their Duty of Care and Duty of Loyalty obligations.
  • Equally seek out agreeing as well as alternate viewpoints: Avoid an echo chamber or focusing too heavily on only the loudest voices. Some of the best and balanced input can come through quieter channels.
  • Evaluate both short-term and long-term effects of any potential stance: Great leaders realize that fuses are short and grudges are long. Spend the needed time to fully evaluate every stance and its correlated communication. Then spend more time on the same topic… And then do it again.
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Effective leadership is about always hearing both (or even multiple) sides to every situation, weighing these into a robust decisioning process, and only then coming to a well-informed conclusion. If we are truly open to diversity, as most leaders emphatically claim, we must not only apply this to diversity of race, background, geography, etc., but also to diversity of perspective — which inevitably leads to diversity of thought and on to well-rounded decisions. So, how do I lead through cancel culture? I purposefully avoid leaders and Directors who are not open to conflicting viewpoints, constructive criticism, alternate viewpoints, etc. I remember you from many years ago on the playground when you “took your ball and went home.” That is still you. I already have enough data on whether or not you are a great leader based on your ability and desire to make time to truly listen to all viewpoints. Those leaders subscribing to the ‘cancel mindset’ and belief system remove themselves from these types of scenarios by default, effectively extracting themselves from your circles for you. Let them do this work for you — it saves a significant amount of time and heartache.

…Oh, and in the spirit of this article, yes, I am fully open to hear your comments, disagreements, additions, constructive criticisms, etc. 😉

Are you truly a courageous leader?

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Mark A. Pfister — Non-Executive Director | CEO | Chief Board Consultant | Corporate Strategist | Board Macro-Influencer | Speaker | Author —

About the Author: With a strong focus in Strategy, Governance, and Technology/Cybersecurity, Mark A. Pfister is CEO & Chief Board Consultant of M. A. Pfister Strategy Group, an executive advisory firm that serves as a strategic advisory council for executives and Boards in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. He is also Chairman & CEO of Integral Board Group, a specialized Board services and consulting company. Mr. Pfister is a ‘Board Macro-Influencer’ and his success has been repeated across a wide range of business situations and environments. He prides himself on being a coach and mentor to senior executives and directors. In Board Director circles, Mr. Pfister has earned the nickname ‘The Board Architect’…………. << read full bio here >>




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