The Fine Art of Virtue Signaling: Leadership at the Intersection of Business and Politics
Written By Dick Massimilian
Published Fall 2020
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks” – Gertrude, in Hamlet
Virtue signaling – taking conspicuous but essentially useless action purportedly to support a worthy cause, but actually to show off – has become an art form this year. Examples abound on social media and company websites, earmarked by phrases such as I/we “stand for/with,” “are committed to being part of the solution,” and/or “have donated to….” When it comes to virtue signaling, it is important recognize and understand the signalers’ motives.
Who needs to prove he’s strong, someone who knows he’s strong, or someone afraid he isn’t? Who needs to show she’s smart, someone who knows she is, or someone afraid she isn’t? People comfortable in their own skin have nothing to prove. The harder someone tries to assure up he’s one way, the more you know he’s afraid he’s the other.
There is also the desire to be part of the club, the cool crowd. Celebrities are masters of this, but corporations work hard at it too. No one likes feeling left out, especially if career or social advancement is at stake. Individuals often jump on a bandwagon to demonstrate they hold the views of a group to which they aspire to belong. And what better way to increase profits than by assuring everyone you care about more than profits?
Finally, companies may want to prove they are on the “right” side of an issue before someone suggests they’re not. Or they may think they can up their profile with some of their customers without alienating others (see profit motive above). Or they may simply want to deflect attention from more contentious issues. The NBA is particularly adept at the latter.
There is nothing wrong with self-promotion. Virtue signalers dissemble to deflect attention from their true motives. Ultimately, they fool no one.
Read my other articles in the series, “Leadership at the Intersection of Business and Politics”:
How to Navigate an Increasingly Politicized World
Everything Said is Said by Someone
Shift the Narrative