Winston Churchill is famously credited with saying that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others… Although often quoted as a humorous aphorism, his deeper point was that despite an inherent inefficiency, the checks and balances of an open society are the best way to secure progress, peace, and prosperity for all. I sometimes wonder if his conviction was a comfort when having led his country through the Second World War, he was promptly voted out of office.
The benefits of an open society were further explored around the same time by the philosopher Karl Popper. As an Austrian of Jewish descent, he had close experience of the dark side of authoritarianism. His core insights were founded on the contrast between the rich battle of opinions that democracies thrive on, and the limiting dogma of societies dominated by a single party, person or cultural creed. Applying the methods of scientific inquiry to politics and government, Popper was a standard-bearer for diversity, freedom, and the meritocracy of ideas.
Today, many of the world’s larger companies and organizations have as much power and influence as nation-states. Indeed, the reach of multinational corporations has long been a cause of concern for governments and international law. Recently, for example, the policies and practices of the technology giants controlling social media have rightly come in for scrutiny, given their role in public debate. It’s no coincidence that the world’s most repressive regimes all seek to limit their availability as a means of stamping out critical thought.
Businesses of course are not democracies in the true sense, and indeed there is a good reason why this is so. The combination of ownership rights and the need for clear direction requires a hybrid model in which a range of views are considered, but without recourse to a vote on every issue. Companies in the democratic West also operate in a wider context of competition and regulatory law that provides a range of checks and balances which are lacking in more centrally controlled economies. Perhaps most importantly, the best businesses recognize that their long-term prosperity lies in being open to fresh ideas and challenges, validated on merit rather than any alignment to an orthodoxy.
All of this explains why I think we should have pause for thought when someone as powerful as Elon Musk makes a bid for Twitter. Is it right that effectively he alone decides whether former President Trump should or be given access, or that one or other view is acceptable or too dominant? Are we comfortable that the checks and balances I spoke of earlier can continue to work when there is such a disparity of influence and dominance of ownership? Twitter, for all its faults, is unarguably one of the most influential political platforms on Earth. And that’s why I’m queasy about the prospect of it coming under the control of anyone individual, regardless of whether they’re a benign saint or an evil genius.
In recent years I’ve written a lot about values and their critical role in the health of organizations. What’s become clear to me is the essential tension we must hold between being steadfast in our beliefs while remaining open to challenges and ultimately their change. This is why values are best determined by a commitment to ‘inside-out’ thinking, ensuring we listen carefully to the views of those within the organization as well as the best thoughts from beyond. A sure sign that values are not representative or effective in their purpose is when they become overly aligned to one particular viewpoint.
There are no easy solutions to achieving this. In a sense, we will always fail in our pursuit, just as listening and compromise will always be frustrating to those who are certain they are right! In the case of Twitter, I’m at least reassured that it will continue to operate under the competitive pressures that are perhaps our greatest insurance against closed thinking. Meanwhile, as leaders—in business, politics or indeed our daily lives —we must all be torchbearers for Popper’s open society of ideas and opinions. And in doing so, we would do well to remember Churchill, and recognize that the path of innovation and inclusion will often seem like the worst possible way… bar all the rest!