Silence in the Face of Things that Matter

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Yesterday, on the federal holiday that is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I went to work. And, truth to tell, I was too consumed with client concerns and various front-burner issues to give much thought to Dr. King during the day. Last night, however, I found myself in a dinner table discussion arising from my youngest son’s inquiry about; (i) why the schools were closed; and (ii) what the Google doodle for the day meant.

For those of you who may have missed it, the Google doodle highlighted Dr. King’s “content of their character” quote. In our discussion, however, I found that that expression did not resonate with my children as much as some of his others. Perhaps so because it is expressed in the passive voice – “they will be judged” – rather than in an active voice which would make the listener the thought’s protagonist. In either case, the quote at the outset of this entry made our conversation much more concrete. It was here that the conversation turned from what they (the people who judge others by color) should do to what we should do if we witness a wrong that matters.

Last year, I recorded a video centered on the idea that “you teach what you tolerate.” My focus, then as now, was on business practices. Now I know that Dr. King’s message was crafted to raise the consciousness of a nation, rather than the productivity of a workplace, but the same truth applies. As business principals and managers, our businesses begin to decline the day we become silent about things that matter.

In the Republican debate last night, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum once again directed their fire at frontrunner Mitt Romney over his tenure at Bain Capital. It was fascinating theater, made even more so by the backdrop of the seeming Party of business frantically trying behind the scenes to get the candidates to tone down the attacks on the free enterprise system. The controversy begs the question: Is there an inherent conflict between the ideal unbridled self-interest that is the capitalist system and the universal truth that turning a blind eye to things (including things other than money) causes ourselves and our companies to diminish?

I don’t think so. I believe that adherence to core values is, in and of itself, good business. I would submit that, in business, what causes most companies to begin to die is not a conscious decision to turn away from core values, but rather a reluctance to take action when witnessing transgressions or problems that matter. From the seemingly trivial (dress code) to the indisputably significant (price gouging, customer disservice, and policy indifference), we as business owners teach what we tolerate.

In the running of a company, just as in the redemption of a nation, silence is fatal in the face of things that matter.

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