The summer of 2016 is a very exciting time to be 22 years old. Not only have many people graduated recently, but it’s also an election year and corresponds with the final rounds of the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. It’s a time when both graduates and the country as a whole are giving serious thought to the future and the society we live in, and, unsurprisingly, there are a lot of differing opinions on what that should look like and how we ought to get there. Lately, I’ve been struck by the continuing relevance of John Stuart Mill’s famous quote from 1859, “Conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them.” Mill thought that the key to truth lay in debating a clash of ideas, and that real change couldn’t occur without listening to an oppositional viewpoint.
I’m not the only one struck by the timeliness of this notion, as it has been present in commencement speeches all over the country. Even though I’m not 22, I was particularly inspired by President Obama’s address to the Howard University class of 2016. He noted, “Our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas […] Listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them.” President Obama spoke against an unfortunate trend on some college campuses where speakers have had their speaking engagements withdrawn because a vocal minority of students disagreed with their views. The wonderful thing about the college experience is that you get to immerse yourself in a diversity of views, and that differing opinions allow you to grow as a person and learn how to productively debate with others, particularly if they come from a different background or culture.
The New York Times recently wrote about this issue in conjunction with free speech, framing it as follows: “How can campuses best navigate inclusiveness and debate while being mindful of students who feel marginalized, disrespected and overlooked?”
One answer is the University of Chicago’s 2015 Statement on Freedom of Expression, which states in part: “It is for individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make [judgements on potentially offensive ideas] for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.” Versions of the Chicago Statement have since been released at 13 other schools, all of which reiterate the importance of personal expression and what it means to appropriately debate and dissent. The basic principles of communication hold that we do not exist in a vacuum; instead, we are constantly acting and reacting to those around us. In a very real sense, we make sense of the world through engagement with others.
The First Amendment exists as a reminder of that notion – to listen and learn from contrarian viewpoints. Former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, also presented some similar, cogent thoughts in his recent address to the University of Michigan class of 2016. He spoke against the idea that “we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views. We can’t – and we shouldn’t try, not in politics, or in the workplace. In the global economy, and in a democratic society, an open mind is the most valuable asset you can possess.”
As you can tell from my ruminations above, open-mindedness and diversity is something I feel very strongly about, both personally and in my business. My company, Ovation Travel Group, was founded as a meritocracy: I believe a person’s skillset and how much value they can add to the enterprise as a whole should be the most important factor in hiring. I believe in equal opportunity and that anyone with a good idea should be able to present that idea and be heard. Even in business, I do not try to force my ideas on people. Instead, I solicit views from anyone who has an idea or plan on how we can provide better service to our clients. I’ve said before that I view my role as CEO as a catalyst for the business, and I want to empower Ovation’s employees to work creatively and collaboratively in order to create best practices and achieve success. Even if it’s an idea I might not agree with, that person is speaking from their position of expertise and they deserve to be heard. It’s extremely important to me that everybody knows they are contributing something of value to the company, and that they feel they are part of the team as we move forward.
But it also goes beyond that. Recent years have seen the rise of the “Activist CEO,” where people in positions of power raise awareness and take a stance on public issues. One recent example is Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, who has been very outspoken against North Carolina’s “bathroom law,” which restricts transgender individuals from using public bathrooms that do not match their biological sex. Marc Benioff is facilitating change within his own company as well; when female employees at Salesforce confronted him about the gender pay gap, he worked to rectify the problem.
I think that what Marc Benioff is doing and the model that he’s presenting sets a very powerful example of enlightened leadership. As a CEO, your constituents are not only your shareholders, and not only your employees, but also your community. It’s essential to stand up for the values of your community, and it’s also in the best interests of the business to do so, because the company that attracts and retains the highest quality people is the company that wins. If you close yourself off to certain segments of the population because of race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation–or any other category–you are limiting diversity of opinion, and hence closing off opportunities for success.
Of course, when you have a diversity of opinion, that doesn’t mean you always agree. As a CEO, I am in a position of power and authority, and I am very cautious about how I discuss my own personal political beliefs because I don’t want anyone else to feel uncomfortable just because I may not hold similar views. Irrespective of whether or not I happen to agree, more than anything I respect a person that stands up for what they believe in and does something about it.
This is what is great about living in a democracy. It’s about getting involved with and bettering your community, and perhaps the greatest way to do so is to vote. I’ve voted as soon as I was eligible, and it’s something I have never take for granted. I can think of no better advice to anyone—whether you are 22 or 62—than to be open-minded, to educate yourself and to vote. President Obama spoke very eloquently about this, saying “I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes […] When we don’t vote, we give away our power, disenfranchise ourselves — right when we need to use the power that we have.” Regardless of what anyone else thinks, if you don’t agree with something, you can do something about it. In sum, everybody has the power to effect positive change.