The challenge of making a stand for changeAugust 2013
When Shakespeare’s Juliet poses the question, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” she is alluding to the fact that what matters is what something is, and not what it is called. In the responsible business model what that something is has a heightened importance and in our brand oriented 21st century, what it is called is pretty important too.
I recently came across a story about a high school sports team in the US which has recently changed its name, a name that had been part of the local area’s DNA since 1926. The school in question, located in the northwest corner of Washington State, dropped the nickname ‘Redskins’, following similar moves by other districts to drop offensive names.
What I found interesting was that the school board made this decision despite overwhelming public opposition to the idea. The majority, it seemed, saw no harm in the moniker. (And of course the professional team, the Washington Redskins NFL franchise, is still the second most valuable club in the USA today.)
The story reminded me of the time when I was studying Ibsen’s Enemy of the People in which the lead character, Dr Thomas Stockmann, on discovering a huge community health risk, is shocked to find that he is not listened to. It always shocks me too to think that ‘the majority is not always right’, having been brought up on a diet of community and the basic principles of democracy.
One of the memorable quotes from the play is “the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone” which could describe the modern day whistleblower (depending on your viewpoint). Margaret Heffernan, the writer and business woman, knows a lot about whistleblowers. In her book, Wilful Blindness (which, by the way, I heartily recommend), she talks to quite a few to find out what drove them to stand up and be counted. She also calls them Cassandras – based on the Greek mythology of Cassandra who had the gift of prophecy but also cursed by Apollo to never be believed.
I was lucky enough to hear Heffernan talk at the Institute of Business Ethics’ summer event a few weeks ago. Both passionate and logical, she is an inspiring figure. She found that what all the female whisteblowers she met had in common was that they had grown up in small neighbourhoods/towns where there is a sense of “oh goodness, there’s trash in that vacant lot, better pick it up. There’s that sense that your actions matter. What you do matters.”
Another woman who helped inspire an audience in recent weeks about businesses making a difference, was actress Joanna Lumley. Perhaps in a lighter vein, but just as passionate, Lumley - a keen supporter of responsible business - was a co-host at the recent Business in the Community Responsible Business Awards. Admittedly she was preaching to the converted but her enthusiasm and her verve could not be reined in. Speaking about businesses being responsible and being sustainable, she advocated that businesses be “reckless”: “You know it’s the right thing. Just do it!”
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