It’s possible the past few weeks of tortured discourse around Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court exemplifies confirmation bias like few other current parables have. As humans, we tend to interpret new evidence as confirming what we already believed.
My belief is that the best we can do to counter our biases is to vigilantly acknowledge them, disclose them and actively seek to understand other points of view. The attempt to get all the perspectives in the room, to create a container for generative dialogue to occur, is the true work of leadership.
This has been my belief for many years, and informed the work I have done in a variety of roles, as a business executive, a nonprofit CEO, and the president of an all-girls Catholic high school. Lately there has been much focus on the notion of “CEO activism,” as if the need for CEOs to incorporate societal concerns into their work is new.
This is not new. What is new is the emerging acknowledgment, backed up by academic research, that organizational leadership has at least two distinct parts: the role of strategist, with responsibilities for advancing the goals of the enterprise, and the role of citizen, with responsibilities to society. This same body of research explores how relations between business and society have changed in post-modern world, where international institutions, NGOS, and business organizations have joined nation states as political actors.
The plain-speaking way I talk about this phenomenon is to dub it “sector bleed.” The roles played by each sector have merged, as the lines between them have grown fuzzier. It should not surprise us that leaders of enterprises in these various sectors find that their roles are also less distinct. This is one argument for stakeholder theory, explored by many scholars lately, and dissected in “Corporate Friction:How Corporate Law Impedes American Progress and What to Do about It,” a recent book by Santa Clara law professor David Yosifon. There is no way, the argument extends, for the current enterprise CEO to accomplish even narrowly defined goals without considering a broader set of perspectives. Yosifon argues corporate law should evolve to catch up with this reality.
There is a paradox in this moment of blended leadership roles and sectors. While encouraging exchanges of different points of view to fulfill both the role of strategy leader and conversation container creator, CEOs can help their organizations by swimming in their lanes a bit more, or as I refer to it, playing their position.
In Silicon Valley, we see evidence of sector bleed when companies encourage political discourse on company bulletin boards and build housing for employees to live on campus. I consider these both ill-advised moves. While enterprise leaders need to have skills to be both strategist and citizen, they also need to acknowledge that not every employee wants to be both in the workplace. The demands millennials’ make as customers and employees on today’s corporation are now well-documented. But people also expect to retain their individual rights outside of the office.
Each each of us, I believe, would like to choose our friends and support them as we see fit. At times, our jobs prevent this. I could not, for example, contribute to a friend’s political campaign, because I work for a nonpartisan ethics enter. But I would want to sit behind her in a show of support if she were testifying to Congress, just as I would provide a reference for a job, or show up if she were, in fact, on trial.
If we do not befriend people with different points of view, how can we ever hope to find common ground?
So I find the outrage that some Facebook
employees expressed about a top executive’s choice to attend the nomination hearing of his friend, Brett Kavanaugh, misplaced. Joel Kaplan’s presence reminds us that having true friendships with people across the political spectrum is one of the ways we will work our way back to a more secure democracy. If we do not befriend people with different points of view, how can we ever hope to find common ground?
“If you are a strong brand, never get involved with the Holy Trinity: sex, religion and politics,” Russell Quinan, chief strategy office for Theory SF, a branding agency, was quoted as saying in a Yahoo Finance story to explain why Kaplan’s attendance was a mistake. Other brand strategists agreed.
This is what is wrong with seeing people as brands. Joel Kaplan is not Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, one could argue, is. I would like to think that Mark Zuckerberg might also choose to support a friend in a tough moment, even if his politics did not line up with the politics that friend, that we have moved passed a time when that is possible is at the heart of the challenges we are facing in a sharply divided country. It also highlights one of the common ethical dilemmas people in leadership positions face — balancing their professional role and their personal lives.
The negative reaction by many Facebook employees to Kaplan’s presence at the hearing is a critical reminder that our workplaces are filled with people with myriad points of view and that this is a strength. Diversity of political thought is a critical element we need in decision-making bodies, like boardrooms and hearing rooms, and also in our private lives, on the beach, around the campfire. Indeed, the outcry from Facebook employees is ironic, given that Facebook has contributed to creating the very echo chambers of like-mindedness that contribute to the great divide.
When people with diverse backgrounds have healthy relationships with one another, higher quality decisions can be reached.
Having friends that I know will be my friends for life even if we disagree politically is one of the strongest assets I have had in any of the roles I have held professionally. It means I have a safe place to go to try to understand the life experiences and goals my friends have and how they could be so different from mine. It is why I take heart from the friendship between Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Jeff Coons (D-DE). When people with diverse backgrounds have healthy relationships with one another, higher quality decisions can be reached.
If we believe having more women in the boardroom is positive — and I do — then we must also see the benefit that a senior Facebook executive is a friends of a conservative jurist. We need the engagement of all “the people” to have a healthy democracy. Not just the ones that think like we do.
Ann Skeet is the senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views expressed here are her own.