Apple CEO Tim Cook’s announcement that he is gay made news headlines around the world. As the first Fortune 500 CEO to come out, I think his decision was remarkably brave. Although we live in a much more open and tolerant society these days, there are still many parts of the world in which gay people have to live their lives behind a veil of secrecy.

It is still illegal to be gay in 78 countries. You can be executed for being gay in Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Uganda, you can be jailed for life. Even in a country like the US, despite its liberal outlook, it is still legal in 29 states to fire someone because they are gay. Besides discrimination on legal grounds, conservative attitudes with regards to sexual orientation still hold sway in many countries. Shortly after Cook’s announcement, a memorial in St Petersburg in Russia to honour Apple founder Steve Jobs was taken down. In China, where alternative lifestyles have been gaining acceptance over the past few years, the news was trending on social media within the hour, with comments mostly derogatory.

It has been estimated that around 4% of the population is gay, and this makes one wonder how many of the top executives of the companies listed on the JSE have a sexual orientation different to the norm? And whether many of them don’t feel free enough to come out publicly, given the homophobia that does still exist in sizable sections of our society? With the example set by Cook, don’t they perhaps have a responsibility to do so?

I believe they do. It will show real leadership if a CEO is out and proud to be gay. It will demonstrate openness and authenticity. It will send a signal to employees, many of whom may also be struggling with whether or not to reveal their orientation, that their leaders embrace diversity and are not afraid to be who they are. It is about self-awareness and showing vulnerability and a human side, something most people can relate to.

We have made great strides in increasing ethnic and even gender diversity on our executive teams and even in our boardrooms. Is it not perhaps time to extend that diversity to sexual orientation? More and more leaders in other fields are coming out – from politics and academia to sports and entertainment – I believe it is time for business and boardrooms to break barriers and follow suit. It will not only send a clear message to employees, but will also lead to greater tolerance and acceptance of alternative lifestyles in broader society. It will also send a strong signal that hiding one’s true identity is no longer required to be successful in business and get to the top.

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