What an age we live in. I don’t have to go to the library to avail myself of the world’s best thinkers—I need only tune in to YouTube. I still love to read, but how very convenient to be able to watch or listen to some of the world’s greatest thinkers on my way to and from work, whether in the car ride into the office or on a flight across the continent.
While some complain about the algorithms that select what you see based on your past preferences, I’m still in the phase of amazement that it has served me up such rich pickings, the likes of which I would never have known about unless I was an academic, used to cross-referencing citations.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
The major theme of all my listening has been around the foundational idea of our Western civilisation—the idea of freedom of speech. This year a group of proponents of free speech was named the Intellectual Dark Web by one of their members, Eric Weinstein, a noted mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital. The group gained some notoriety after the moniker was picked up in a May 2018 New York Times article. In truth, the group is loosely affiliated but they often end up interviewing each other or sharing stages. The core includes, in alphabetical order, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sam Harris, Heather Heying, Claire Lehmann, Douglas Murray, Maajid Nawaz, Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, Michael Shermer, Debra Soh, Christina Hoff Sommers, Bret Weinstein and Eric Weinstein.
In their different ways, these defenders of free speech have reawakened in me its centrality to freedom itself and its importance to me. As I listened, I found myself thinking increasingly about the implications of their words for the world of business. For we who work in, manage, lead or own businesses are an integral part of the civilisation in which we conduct those activities. Our business lives are not separate from the culture in which that business is done. Instead, our actions shape the culture and, in turn, are shaped by it. We ignore our hard-won freedom of speech at our peril.
“Our business lives are not separate from
the culture in which that business is done.”
The basic tenet of freedom of speech is that we cannot advance our knowledge of our world and how to be productive actors in it if we are not allowed to engage in free speech, and its associated virtue of freedom of thought. I recall the debate in Australia around the failed attempted to repeal section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, which reads, in part, that it is an offence to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people’. This seemed perfectly reasonable until a series of cases made me aware of the idea that it is impossible for me to be the custodian of someone else’s offence. There is much law against defamation, incitement and the like, so why was it necessary and how was it possible to protect the feelings of others for words which I say?
Then came the storm of Jordan Peterson in a famous interview with Cathy Newman, during which he made the case for refusing to be compelled to use speech under Canada’s Bill C16, ostensibly designed to show compassion for transgender people by making it an offence not to call them by the gendered pronoun of their choice. I was hooked by this professor of psychology who has spent his life trying to understand the root causes, within the human mind, of the rise of the heinously murderous totalitarian Nazi and Communist regimes of the 20th Century.
One of the easiest ways to explore the opinions of the thinkers listed above is to visit the Rubin Report on YouTube. Dave Rubin is a political commentator who has an endearing way of drawing out his guests reminiscent of Larry King (seeing his interview with King is a great reminder of the roots of this form of communication). I particularly enjoyed watching Rubin interview Thomas Sowell, Larry Elder and Candace Owens as they smashed up against my own preconceptions of the range of what black Americans think and what these free individuals have to say about the perception of—and causes and remedies for—what ails our societies.
You could also follow great women thinkers, like Christina Hoff Somers, and our own Australian stars, Claire Lehman and Bettina Arendt. Or hear Douglas Murray sharing with Joe Rogan a very confronting view set out in his book The Strange Death of Europe, or Jonathan Haidt on the wiring of the righteous mind. These are all long-form interviews or talks, of which there are many more. They are a complete contrast to the soundbites of the mainstream media and may be as revolutionary to the spread of free thought as the printing press.
So, what does all this have to do with business? Allow me to give two examples from my consulting activities last year.
One client, with whom I have had several assignments stretching back 18 months, had applied my services in their engineering division and, after some success there, I was invited to facilitate a dialogue amongst the senior leadership of the local entity of this global Australian brand. Nine months in I was convinced the business was going from bad to worse and felt that their compass was pointing in the wrong direction. I wrestled with my conscience about whether to stay silent on the matter and do what was expedient to secure further work, or to speak my truth to power and let that truth create the world I seek to inhabit. The employees had already suffered much by way of overwork and underinvestment in their processes, systems and personal development.
“I was convinced the business was going from bad to worse and
felt that their compass was pointing in the wrong direction.”
After much deliberation, and reflecting on my core belief that people have the right to be well managed, I turned to the principles I wrote about in my book More Than Just Work. At the heart of all of my principles is the Golden Rule: ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. In a much shorter than planned meeting with the Group CEO, I was immediately asked to leave, had the full force of their legal powers on my case, was banned from talking to any of their employees other than those designated to review my findings and finally received a letter saying that after their investigation there was no substance to what I had to say and, if ever there was, they already knew about it and had it under control.
I retraced every word I’d said and asked some trusted friends to test the validity of the assertions I was making. I had been consciously respectful and acted from a place of integrity, wanting only what I thought was best for their business. Getting divorced from a long-term client like that with no notice was initially a huge shock to the system. I can still vividly recall my counterpart in the company walking past me as I waited for my Uber on the pavement, too dumbstruck to say anything, looking back at me over his shoulder with a mixture of pity and disdain. In an instant, I’d become a pariah. And yet, I felt an enormous sense of relief at the same time. I couldn’t hold the lie in any longer. Whatever the consequence, I had to speak my truth.
Despite feeling deeply shaken by the instantaneous and brutal reaction to what I had to say, I also felt liberated from the tyranny represented by the organisation and its most senior management. It felt amusingly ironic to me that this company had been a vocal champion of the recent plebiscite on gay marriage and plastered its diversity credentials wherever it could attract an eye or an ear. Yet diversity of that sort apparently didn’t lead naturally to accepting diversity of viewpoints when it came to the leadership and management of operations.
I cannot complain that my own rights were trampled upon; companies are not democracies, and the executive team, appointed by the board, on behalf of the shareholders, is entitled to do as it wishes within the law. But, how very sterile they become when they so instantly dispose of a messenger carrying a message they don’t want to hear. How brittle and feeble become their responses to the world changing around them? What a price they pay for such censorship of speech. How delinquent are they in the impoverishment of their leaders and their corporate capacity for true leadership?
I have been around long enough and suffered sufficiently the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to know that fate can often be your friend. As I stepped into that Uber I got a call from another client. After a preliminary assignment they had decided to continue with a substantive piece of work. The Dalai Lama has an expression: ‘sometimes be grateful for what you don’t get’. My liberation from the one assignment meant I could put all my energy into making a remarkable success of doing meaningful work with people in the same dance as me.
This company also had a diversity agenda, which in truth meant they wanted more women in the workplace and in the executive suite. One of their rivals had stated that they would be 50:50 men and women by 2025, and so, not to be outdone, the corporates in head office said they would get there by 2023. The trouble was that the business is in heavy industry and not much had been automated. Heavy equipment needs brute strength to operate and those women who were involved in the field were getting injured at a higher rate than the men. It also meant that the men were becoming resentful of having to carry more of the load to compensate.
A senior woman manager talked to me about the folly of the idea of having a 50:50 workforce. She told me this would mean a freeze on hiring men for at least the next five years. And, even if they were to abide by such a policy, where on earth would they get these women from? Study after study has shown that, on balance, men prefer things and women prefer people. In the Scandinavian countries, the most gender egalitarian on earth, the result has been to see a widening of the preferences made by men and women—more male engineers and more female doctors and nurses. No one, she stated, should mistake her passion for equality of opportunity. In our age, no one—regardless of sex, race, ethnicity or religion—should be denied the opportunity to follow their will. But, there is no sensible way to manage an equality of outcome without descending into tyranny. How refreshing to hear such talk from a woman without the anesthetising effect of an ideological argument.
We need more free speech in business, not less. We have a very precious heritage in our Judeo-Christian civilisation that is built on the proposition that each of us is created in the image of God and we are therefore, each and every one of us, equal before all. As a consequence, we are free to think as we will, and that is not something we should ever surrender without a fight.
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