The Ethical Journey of America

Yesterday was an awesome day. I flew to Kansas City, Missouri, to visit a dear friend of 30 years who is one of the greatest minds I know.

Richard “Wetz” Wetzel and I met in the fall of 1985 at George Washington High School in Denver, Colorado. It was an incredible place: more African-American than white and more Jewish than anything I had ever known. It was America in a building of 1,800 kids. Some of us were middle class, others poor, some had whole families, others were much more broken up. And we found common ground like listening to Depeche Mode, Public Enemy, INXS (The Swing is still their best album), and our beloved HoJo (Howard Jones to you millennials).

Since we left, we became teachers, mothers, business leaders, loners, gatherers, travelers and fathers. Some have gone to prison, others have used laughter and improv to make the world smile. And some of us embarked on an important mission to…Kansas.

A Conversation Between Friends
The reason for this trip was “homework” I needed to complete for Convercent and a project we are passionate about (surprises to come). As any CEO knows, when you need to get something big done—call for help. My goal was to take a few hours and step back to question and understand the impact that ethics has had on us through history, and how we have arrived where we are. What was the arc of time and how should it impact the journey Convercent is on? 

My conversation with Wetz was like a tennis match (not Federer and Nadal, more like two guys in their mid 40s who could stand to lose 10 pounds). We listed thinkers like MLK and Gandhi, and religious creators like Jesus and Mohammed. When did it start, was it Socrates or Aristotle? What did the “Magna Carta” mean and was it more important than Martin Luther’s “95 Theses”? Where do the birth of America, “Declaration of Independence,” “Bill of Rights,” “Emancipation Proclamation” and Civil Rights Movement fit in?

As we bounced around topics, Charlottesville came up. What did it mean and how should we think about it? Of course, we think Neo-Nazis are intolerant, that bigotry is ridiculous, and intolerance stupid. We are the sons of a women’s studies professor and a mother who survived a world war. When I think about our national conversation these past six weeks, the ridiculousness of having to state these things that seem so basic is strange.
America is angry right now. We’re experiencing more divisions than unity, more “I am right and they are wrong” than taking the time to understand how the other person thinks.

Here’s Huck back in May on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It’s where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 54 years ago. Yes, Huck, you will go every time we visit.

Dreaming Big
Mulling about all of this on the flight home, I went to a place my mind often goes: Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I love it. It is the best of America. From a hot summer day in 1963, when hundreds of thousands came together to march for freedom and dignity. That day there were no riots, no cars driven into crowds. It was a preacher from Atlanta imploring us to “have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” It was a message of hope and resilience that pleaded us to come together and be the very best version of ourselves that we could possibly be.

It is this message that pulls me back to the spot he gave the speech on—the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I listen to this speech each and every trip I make to D.C. I believe in that America, I believe in that dream. 

Wetz and I realized that the journey of ethics over the past several thousand years is not a straight line. From one generation to the next, what is considered right and good has changed, and the journey, though horribly painful and often unjust, is moving to a higher level of empathy and truth with each step. What is normal in one minute of history becomes a challenge to sacrum in another. The “Bill of Rights” guaranteed freedoms never before documented yet left most of society off the list. Lincoln abolished slavery yet women couldn’t vote for another 52 years.

The speed of change throughout the course of history is accelerated. How do we go from a generation to a decade, a decade to a year, and a year to a month? How does understanding and equality get to the speed of innovation we see all around us?

A New Normal
There is an ethical transformation happening in business and society today. The “normal” way of business in Brazil and South Korea is no longer accepted by its citizens or courts. Gordon Gekko’s creed of “greed is good” is not a mission statement for the business that can survive in the new town square of Twitter and Facebook. Millennials are demanding shared values in the brands they buy and the experiences they have. People want to know where their food comes from and how it was made. The internet has brought us transparency and allows us to judge the words of corporations against their actions and how they do business.

Is this journey complete? Of course not. Nowhere close. The conversation is all around us. Boards and CEOs know that reputations can be far more harmed by the “court of public opinion” than regulators. Many are moving into this light by choice (TOMS Shoes), while others will be pushed (Volkswagen). But if they want to survive they will stay on the journey.

This is our journey at Convercent: to drive ethics to the center of business for a better world. It is Kyla’s and my journey, as Huck’s parents, to make sure he knows that saying hello to every human being with kindness and equality is the core of one’s character. It is my journey as a human, CEO, husband, father and friend to learn from my many, many mistakes and use them to do good.

I believe this country is so much more than Charlottesville. I won’t say what we don’t believe, but will stand up for what we do: equality for all, period.

Thank you, Wetz. It was a good day.

Onward and upward.