The Week in Ethics: Gillette’s Leadership, the Backlash and Possibility

 

Gillette released this week a short film “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” Some criticize it as an attack on men; others disagree and see it as inspiring and hopeful. My take is the under two-minute video illustrates another Fortune 500 company’s courage and leadership to try and use the power of its brand to create a conversation about personal accountability in how others are treated. And let’s face it, that conversation is overdue.

The video’s message is “things have gotten out of control.” It calls out bullying, “boys will be boys” justifications, “toxic masculinity,” gender put downs and sexual harassment and assault. It calls on men “…to say the right thing, to act the right way.” Pointing out that “some already are, in ways big and small, but some is not enough because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

I grew up in the city where Gillette is headquartered. For over 100 years it has carried itself, and been accepted, as an icon of masculinity. At the same time, what is meant by femininity has undergone an evolving transformation since women gained the right to vote in 1920. The meanings of respect, fairness, inclusion and trust still shudder for mutual acceptance. Gillette is stepping up and into a maelstrom of public emotions and opinions about power and its abuse, clearly doing it wide eyed. The company, and its parent Procter and Gamble, had to know there would be fallout. The question is what role can they play in leading by example and supporting an evolving definition of masculinity now that their ad has become a focal point of attention?

Gillette, wrote, in explaining its video, “that brands like ours play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.” The company pledged “to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette.”

As with the experience Starbucks faced in 2015 in its “Race Together” initiative on racial inequality, Gillette’s video immediately proved controversial — offensive to some (a call for a company boycott) and garnering praise for the backlash it is creating. Stepping up to address social problems is tricky for companies as Starbucks learned; there were mistakes along the way as Starbucks acknowledged in how it made sure it was leading by example.

However, when attempting difficult conversations (whether in the living room, classroom, break room, board room or using social media as a platform) it won’t be perfect. In the best of intentions and aspirations, mistakes will be made but so will progress. Mistakes anticipated and prepared for (the smartest way), or addressed when made, chart progress in how to improve individually, as a culture and as a society. If nothing really important is attempted, learned from and tried again, nothing changes.

For 30 years Gillette has used the tagline “the best a man can get.” They’ve changed it to “The Best Men Can Be.” The company statement on the video continues: “we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and coming communication and reflecting on the types of men and behaviors we want to celebrate. We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.”

Gillette’s closing line in the video — “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best”– could be the motto of a team striving to win the Olympics. It also expresses the aspiration and rigor we should expect of business leaders and all of us in the conversations ahead.

Gael O’Brien, January 17, 2019, The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is an executive coach, consultant and presenter focused on helping leaders and organizations build trust, engagement and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute, Babson College.

 

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