Imagine you’ve spent two decades built up a remarkable organization. It’s small, but beautiful, with about 60 employees in total. The company has always been laser-focused on its service offerings. That’s how you stay ahead of the competition.
People were discussing the diversity issue. The racial debate got so heated that it threatened to pull the company apart. You, as the CEO, wanted to calm things down. You said employees should not use the company’s internal chat forums to debate societal and political issues. These are tools for people to collaborate, you reasoned. Employees should spend time building bridges, not throwing up walls at work. Politics must stay out. Days later, one-third of your workforce resigned. Now concerned customers are calling in.
This company is Basecamp. It makes productivity software for enterprises. For more than a decade, customer service representatives had kept a list of customer names that they found funny. Some in the “Best Names Ever” list were of Asian and African origin. It had been a harmless office joke. But in the year 2021, the tradition looked out of place.
Employees had read the memoir Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Others looked up the Anti-Defamation League’s “pyramid of hate.” They argued distasteful jokes lay the foundation for racial crimes. Still, others applied the logic of “Me and White Supremacy,” written by Layla Saad, saying silence equals active racism.
These books were international bestsellers. The cultural tidal shift was apparent. Except the big boss didn’t get it. CEO Jason Fried closed the thread on the internal forum. At the fateful all-hands meeting, employees were debating the company’s culture. The longtime head of strategy Ryan Singer said, “I strongly disagree we live in a white supremacist culture.” It’s an all-too-familiar remark. Singer said, “Very often if you express a dissenting view, you get called a Nazi.” CEO Fried responded, “Thank you, Ryan.” That was it. One-third of employees quit after the meeting. A decade and a half of trust-building went up in smoke.
Basecamp CEO Jason Fried
How Not to Be Obnoxious
Values change. Society evolves. Humor changes. There are things that we laugh at today that we could not in the past or vice versa. Emmy Award-winning producer and writer Lorne Michaels was the one who created the first episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL) and is still producing the show.
Nothing he did in the ’70s could be done today, Michaels described. “John Belushi would not be able to play Japanese. Garrett Morris doing ‘News for the Hard of Hearing’ would have been making fun of a handicap.” To Michaels, leadership in his field is the ability to change one’s mind and to change it quickly enough. “Between the movie Arthur and the movie Arthur 2, alcoholism became a disease, and no one wanted to laugh at drunks anymore. Whereas for two hundred years they laughed at drunks.”
People miss the sensitivity of a cultural shift because they refuse to listen. They stop listening because the underlying message undermines their identity. This is especially tricky when a lot of emphases is placed on authenticity these days. The idea of authenticity, to some people, seems to be that honesty requires indulging one’s peculiar way of seeing the world. And to change one’s mind is tantamount to a betrayal of “the real you.”
That, of course, is just another way of being stubborn. Marshall Goldsmith said, “Whenever you hear yourself proclaiming that something is just not you, you might want to question your motivation.” He has seen mean bosses continue to be mean because “it wouldn’t be authentic for me to gush over a subordinate’s performance.” Or managers fail to take credit for their fair share, because “I’m just not the self-promotional type.” These are excuses for remaining stuck. It’s often more comfortable to stay the same and to feel proud of it than working your way out to see an issue from the other side.
In other words, intellectual laziness is the root cause.
Each of us, in our own lives, will face a crisis like the one at Basecamp. The stakes may be lower for you. The inability to shift your value system doesn’t need to lead a business to the brink of collapse. What the Basecamp case highlights is that we must avoid an emotional, reactive response. When you are leading a team, an unthinking, semi-automatic reaction won’t do. There are inner struggles you can’t and shouldn’t escape.
Struggling is painful. But that’s the only way to grow.
Melinda Gates’s Struggle With Her Catholic Upbringing
Humans need a sense of uniqueness and a sense of belonging. Lacking belonging, we are purposeless, missing a larger goal. Without our own uniqueness, we don’t feel in control and able to make personal choices. To grow is to have the two forces collide.
Melinda French Gates grew up in Texas, in a Catholic family of four kids. She credited her mom more than anyone else with cultivating her spirituality. Her mother went to Mass five times a week. She regularly went to silent retreats. So when Melinda married Bill and later co-ran the Gates Foundation in Seattle, she saw her philanthropy work clash with her Catholic faith. In Africa and India, she would see mothers overburdened with children competing for attention. Time and time again, she would hear these women saying, “I can’t afford to feed the ones I have now.”
Melinda Gates at the district hospital in Dowa, Malawi
Despite the mountain of data and evidence, contraceptives and family planning weren’t something Melinda could advocate for easily. They violated her church’s teaching and her own upbringing. The easy path was to quit. Stop. But instead, she asked priests, nuns, and Catholic scholars, “Can you take actions in conflict with a teaching of the Church and still be part of the Church?” “That depends,” was the answer she got. “Only when you are true to your conscience, and when the conscience is also informed by the Church.”
There is a Church teaching against contraceptives, she knew. But there is also another Church teaching, which is to love one’s neighbor. “If they faced an appeal from a 37-year-old mother with six children who didn’t have the health to bear and care for another child,” Melinda thought of the Church. “They would find a way in their hearts to make an exception.” In this final discernment, love was more urgent than doctrine. Wisdom isn’t about accumulating more facts, Melinda wrote. “It’s about understanding big truth in a deeper way.” That’s how she reconciled the two values. That’s how she grew as a leader.
The Interrogation of Self
People may say only Melinda French Gates would have the time to discern the greater truth. Most people are too busy to think. CEO Jason Fried at Basecamp was too busy with his product offerings to worry over the cultural shift in the larger society.
But that’s exactly backward. When a CEO proclaims their people are their great assets, they must take their employees as whole people. Competitive organizations always ask workers to give everything to the team. Leaders want to talk about the purpose behind their business. Well, they should know that when they do so, a business will not just be about business. Leaders must be ready to engage in painful and vulnerable conversations. They must be ready to interrogate their own selves in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the world.
Not all leaders need to do that, of course. But pretending to be one way and then acting the other way can’t work.
Thanks for reading—and be well.
P.S., Starting from today till 2nd July, there’s the amazing conference called Innov8rs Connect (https://innov8rs.co/unconf/agenda/). Big names include Alexander Osterwalder, Mark Johnson, Jeff Dyer, Martin Reeves, Rita McGrath, and many others. I’ll be speaking too. I have 10 corporate tickets to give away. Those will let you attend as many sessions as you like. If you made it this far, drop me an email by hitting the reply button. I’ll send a complimentary ticket your way. See you there!
I really agree Howard, you can’t really separate the people from their own culture and force over or replace with the company culture.
As we all grow, we become embolden by out beliefs and will go to extreme lengths to justify them, especially when challenged.
A blend of listening and constructive engagement will bring positive resolve or results more times than not.
Thank you Howard for an amazing article. As a professor, I can totally relate to the truths pinpointed here, especially now that our lectures are conducted virtually.
Thank you Howard for one more pearl.
Excellent article, Howard.
Howard, thanks for this article! I loved it! So timely, eloquent and a wake up call for business leaders as to what it means to be a corporate citizen of the world today. We live in fascinating pivotal times and we have to rise up to the challenge.
Exceptional piece Howard! You’re ability to write thoughtfully and clearly on nearly any topic is a unique gift.
Howard thanks for sharing. This is such an important and interesting topic that deserves more attention.