Muzzling employees' freedom of speech leads to corporate malaise

UNEXERCISED LIBERTY

February 03, 1992|By TOM PETERS | TOM PETERS,TPG COMMUNICATIONS

The United States was invented against authority (the British crown). Lambasting government is our most noble heritage. Heaven knows, government provides us with lots of opportunities!

But governance (political, religious, corporate) is one slippery task. At its core, it demands an analysis of the nature of man -- inherently evil and in need of constant policing, or inherently good, thence best left alone? My distinctly illiberal training in engineering hardly qualifies me to say. Kant, Hegel, Aquinas and Rousseau were notably absent from our curriculum.

I've got a point of view, though. I've been around, after all, for about a quarter of the life of our Bill of Rights, which quietly marked its 200th anniversary 10 days before the demise of the Soviet Union.

Warts and all, our system of governance is an out-and-out miracle. And there are warts. We're too regulated here, not regulated enough there. The definition of "here" and "there" varies, of course, depending on whether you're an Alan Simpson Republican, a Jesse Jackson Democrat, or the rare fan of perennial presidential candidate Harold Stassen.

But the basic American model is in good working order. And make no mistake: Its cornerstone is individual liberty and the right to be obstreperous. "Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ballgame," author Salman Rushdie said during his unexpected public appearance at Columbia University in December. "Free speech is life itself."

Let me make the business connection clear. Corporate and political governance have lots in common. Fundamentally, governance is governance, even if the consequences of the political variety are more profound.

Or are they? Aren't issues of liberty and the nature of man as important within corporations that make up the economy as they are in the political arena? Arguably yes, since satisfactory economic performance is one of the best, if not the best, guarantor of political freedom in the long run.

In "Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment," New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis examines the history of the right to speak out in the United States. (Did you know, for instance, that the Sedition Act of 1798 was President John Adams' politically motivated effort to jail newspaper editors supporting Thomas Jefferson? Jefferson and James Madison even feared that Adams wanted them behind bars.)

Jefferson believed "that democratic government requires the acceptance of risk and change," Lewis writes. Justice Louis Brandeis agreed, in a statement every CEO should heed: "Those who won our independence were no political cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty."

Alter those last words just a bit -- make it, "They did not exalt order at the cost of innovation" -- and you define the problem with cowardly, order-loving, innovation-fearing, big corporate chieftains. For example, Richard Preston, author of "American Steel," attributes that industry's catastrophe to a "gross failure of imagination" by leaders at the likes of USX. Change the name on the letterhead to IBM, General Motors or Sears, and the diagnosis stays the same.

Justice Brandeis didn't stop with order vs. liberty. In a comment even more relevant to corporate governance, he added that "The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people." Once more, his political commentary reflects a pillar of modern corporate malaise, i.e.: "The greatest menace to corporate performance is inert workers, not allowed to use their heads and participate fully in the operations and governance of the company."

But the Bill of Rights, and especially the First Amendment, is ultimately about keeping the American experiment alive by countenancing the most intemperate criticism of those who govern. "The . . . right to criticize either by temperate reasoning, or by immodest and indecent invective," Judge Learned Hand observed, ". . . is the ultimate source of [citizens'] authority." Muted criticism of the commercial flavor has killed many a corporation. My experience with big-boardroom America is one of calm in the midst of the worst storms: That is, scandalous denial, sometimes for a decade or more, of the maelstrom that's upon us.

Judge Hand also wisely added that free speech is "a precarious gift." So it was. Is. Shall be. And in corporate America, if you watch even young Silicon Valley companies ossifying almost overnight, you realize just how precious -- and precarious -- is the gift of spunk, feistiness and "indecent invective" (i.e., rude disagreement with the chief).

One of our wisest CEOs, Quad/Graphic's Harry Quadracci, says the big boss should be "the main dis-organizer. Everybody 'manages' quite well. Whenever anything goes wrong, they take immediate action to make sure nothing will go wrong again. The problem is, nothing new will ever happen, either." Jefferson would have smiled.

Beware muted criticism! Beware an inert work force! It turns out that the very special bunch who pondered the governance of the United States 200 years ago have a lot to teach today's top corporate governors. Above all, to retain vitality, err -- and err wildly -- on the side of raucous dissent and innovative disorder.

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