The Patriotism Formula

The NFL anthem controversy is a reminder of how leaders must navigate their employee and customer bases closely.

It used to be easy as saluting the flag. For decades, companies and employees could demonstrate patriotism in a variety of ways without offending most groups. A key exception, of course, was support for wars such as Vietnam, which divided the country.

Now, with the United States divided in different ways, the current controversy over National Football League (NFL) players “taking a knee” in silent protest during the national anthem is showing how complex patriotic expressions have become, not just for politicians but for the business leaders sitting on the sidelines at the moment. Call it the new patriotism formula—and many experts say the best answer may to be track two constituents: employees and customers.

Listening closely to what is most important to these two groups will help organizations decide what messages ring true with their brand and message. “It must be authentic. Leaders have to live it—manage to it and lead to it,” says Scott Kingdom, a Korn Ferry vice chairman and a core member of the firm’s Board and CEO Services team. “We’ve seen some evidence of that lately, with very senior business leaders becoming more comfortable with political activities and some voices starting to be raised around these issues.”

When employees and customers are aligned in their views, the formula of how to respond can be easier to compute. Traditionally, such alignment has made it simple for companies to use homespun patriotism as part of their brands and messaging.

But when an organization finds its employees on one side and its customers on the other, the right response, if any, becomes complicated. Often, the default decision is to take the agnostic view or to rely on worded statements that don’t say much at all. Neutrality, though, is also a position, experts caution; while it appears safe, it can lead to dissatisfaction when employees feel very strongly about an issue and expect the organization to take a stand. In the case of the NFL, the league and many (but not all) team owners have supported the players in their protest—even though not all fans are in agreement.

On emotionally charged issues, such as what it means to be patriotic, people will naturally be confronted with differing opinions. But engaging in challenging discourse is part of an environment that is not only diverse, but also inclusive of all people and their opinions.

“What does patriotism mean? People are going to have different points of view,” says Andrés Tapia, the Global Diversity & Inclusion Solutions leader for Korn Ferry Hay Group. “Maybe it’s about the country you call home—and doing what you can to maintain a safe, nurturing, and prosperous home that lives up to its values.”

Rather than shy away from the discussion, organizations can tune in more intently to their employees and customers on the themes and values that resonate with them. In the end, experts say, that should help organizations discern how to put themselves on ground with most—but probably not all—of their constituents.