I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan was once asked to campaign against Jesse Helms, the senator from Jordan’s home state. This should have been an easy decision. Helms had once argued that blacks were less intelligent than whites, and that the civil rights bill was the most dangerous legislation in U.S. history. Yet Jordan refused to oppose Helms, noting that “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
Growing up, I always thought this was cowardly. For or against Helms, any position would have been better than no position at all. Jordan was at the time the world’s most influential, widely recognized person. And yet he used his power only to sell hamburgers, sugar-water and $125 Nikes.
Other folks take a stand, and pay the price. I was impressed when WholeFoods CEO John Mackey spoke his mind on health-care reform, even though it was disagreeable to many of his customers, and didn’t address folks without employer-sponsored healthcare.
Now, as the CEO of a small company, I feel implicated in Jordan’s, not Mackey’s, way of thinking. One reason I tend to be less outspoken is because you can’t get older without realizing we’re all fallible, and mostly too partisan.
But mostly I’m circumspect because I’m an ambassador for Redfin, not my own political views. The service mentality we subscribe to at Redfin requires the humility to recognize that your agenda is less important than the company’s agenda, and that any prominence you gain through your office is because of your office, not you.
It’s a good ethic for building an organization. But it also turns you into a sheep. History is filled with folks who never spoke out against discrimination, genocide, slavery, totalitarianism or environmental degradation because they didn’t want to lose their job or upset their neighbors. Our ethical obligations to our organization won’t always square with our moral obligations as a person. This is why each of us has a separate moral life.
Where the two meet is on my Twitter feed, and in all the other social media we contribute to every day. I’m often asked to support explicitly political causes, and good causes that I don’t even consider political but which others do. I try to help privately, but rarely do so publicly.
Sometimes this feels judicious. Sometimes it feels cowardly. But as the distinctions between public and private life dissolve, it gets harder not to stand up and be counted. “With great power,” Uncle Ben in Spiderman says, citing FDR, “comes great responsibility.” Social media has made us more powerful, but not always more responsible.