Newly elected President of Harvard University Claudine Gay has been enduring a firestorm of criticism in the past two weeks as the school is engulfed in a war of words over the deaths of 1,300 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians. Her experience is an important lesson for CEOs and other leaders on speaking up early and directly so that subsequent statements are put into context.
The first words from Harvard were a very aggressive “Joint Statement by Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups on the Situation in Palestine” which “holds the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all of the unfolding violence.” The Administration’s initial reaction was to defend academic freedom of inquiry and speech instead of issuing a clear condemnation of the Hamas terror attack. The sentiment expressed, “We write to you today heartbroken by the death and destruction unleased by the attack by Hamas….at this moment of challenge let us embody the care and compassion the world needs now,” was lampooned as weak and ambivalent.
Two days later, President Gay issued a second statement that clarified her views. She condemned the Hamas action as terrorist atrocity. She made it clear that no student group speaks for Harvard. She also made personal appearances on campus, visiting with Jewish students at Harvard Hillel for Shabbat, seeking out Muslim student groups.
But in the two days between first and second statements, others took the opportunity to fill the void. Bill Ackman, noted hedge fund activist, called for retribution against the members of the 30 groups signing the initial Joint Statement, that would prevent them from getting summer jobs or full-time positions. A conservative group then funded a truck to drive around Harvard Square which showed pictures of the students who had signed the Joint Statement. Former Harvard President Larry Summers piled on, saying that Harvard appears to be at best neutral towards acts of terror against Israel and that he has “never been as disillusioned and alienated in nearly 50 years of Harvard affiliation as I am today.”
There are three options for leaders in moments of complexity. First, say nothing and hope that the storm passes. Second, speak only to your internal audiences. Finally, go public with your views. In this case, it was important to establish the yellow lines for debate, then to create a context for discussion that put humanity at the core instead of politics. Leaders need to move quickly, be clear, provide supporting facts, and avoid having to make multiple statements. The coming months will be trying for business and academic leaders alike as the Middle East descends into armed conflict. We will need to offer our teams a chance to talk, to volunteer and to see us acting on their behalf through charitable donations or using our voices for peace. The role of my CEO as a voice for humanity and clarity and the role of ‘My Employer’ as a place for constructive dialogue, enabling substantive change has never been more important.
Richard Edelman is CEO.