Delta Air Lines flies around the world, but its heart and its headquarters are in Georgia. That tension is part of why I write so much about Delta in my free e-book Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, which you can download here.
It's also why this week, Delta CEO Ed Bastian had no good option other than to step boldly into the middle of the fight over a controversial new Georgia election law, which he called "unacceptable," "wrong," and "based on a lie."
The short-term result? Delta, which is also Georgia's largest employer, is now in a battle with Republicans in the Georgia state legislature and the state's Republican governor, Brian Kemp.
Besides harsh words, the Georgia House quickly voted to rescind a major tax break that Delta gets. It won't actually happen this year because the senate is already out of session, but it tells you the state of affairs.
The election law, as you no doubt have read or seen, is framed as an attempt to make Georgia voting more secure and reliable.
However, opponents say this is a cynical ruse, and that the law is designed to supress Democratic turnout, and especially Black voters, after President Biden and two Democratic senate candidates won Georgia's most recent elections.
Delta is not alone in speaking out. Among others, Biden called the law "outrageous" and "Jim Crow on steroids"; the CEO of Coca-Cola, which is also based in Georgia, said it was "wrong, and needs to be remedied."
Then, on Friday, Major League Baseball announced it's taking the 2021 All Star Game out of Georgia as a result.
However, most of this critical response came after a group of Black executives at big companies called on corporate America to oppose the law, along with similar proposals in other states.
Now, I don't want to spend too much more time on the substance of the law. I suspect you've already decided who is on the side of the angels here, so to speak. Also, it's now largely a rhetorical debate, since Kemp has already signed the law.
Delta, Coca-Cola, and other companies were largely publicly silent on the whole thing while there was still a chance to do anything about it.
In fact, besides the Black executives' calls for companies to speak out, Delta and Coca-Cola started to face boycott campaigns specifically because they hadn't publicly condemned the bills before they were signed.
Bastian suggested in his statement that he hadn't fully understood everything that was in the bill before it was passed. By last weekend, however, #BoycottDelta was one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter.
And the site Popular Information dug into Delta's and other companies' corporate donations to politicians who supported the law.
(In the wake of the Delta experience in Georgia, American Airlines, which is based in Fort Worth, joined other Texas companies this week in publicly opposing a similar election bill now making its way through the Texas legislature.)
Now, for a business leader in any industry, that's where the big takeaways are. Because there was a time, not all that long ago, when companies tried hard to remain publicly neutral on controversial issues.
But our nation was nowhere near as polarized then as it is today, and it was before the rise of social media and other amplifying and organizing tools that mean almost anyone can share their voice and build a following.
It's something Bastian has experienced before. You might recall that he cut Delta's ties with the National Rifle Association in the wake of the murders at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
(Bastian explained that he'd never known his airline even offered an NRA discount, until students who survived the attack found him on social media and lobbied him.)
That's why this whole story is a lesson in leadership: good leadership, and not so good.
Customers and employees now expect companies to share their values, and if you're running a business, that consideration has to be part of your calculus. That means you have to work hard to understand controversial issues before they come to a head.
I'm not saying you need to take a bold, public stand on everything, but you should be able to articulate your company's values, and know where you'd come down. Otherwise, you'll always be playing catch-up.
It's important. It's the equivalent today of not paying attention to the cost of raw materials, and thus having to respond at the last second whenever there's a price spike on things that you depend on in your business.
Bottom line: If you've built a venture that's successful enough for anyone to care about, you're going to be called off the sidelines at some point. Far better to be proactive, and intentional, and set the terms of your contribution before others call you out.
Nobody said leading a business like this was going to be easy. But that's why not just anybody can do it well.
Don't forget the free e-book Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines.