Leadership, Resources

The Koch Brothers and Maybe I’m Wrong

I am wrong about a great many things. That is one of the most fundamental things I believe to be true. It serves as a much needed reminder to me that my assumptions, educated guesses, hunches, and intuition are all vulnerable to error and I had better be humble and cautious about my views. That said, a couple recent episodes of the Freakonomics podcast challenged me significantly. They feature interviews with Charles Koch, an American billionaire and (along with his brother) one of the most reviled figures among many people for his involvement in politics and his efforts to reframe the world according to his own vision. Host Stephen Dubner has a knack for being insightful and challenging his listeners more than his guests. He didn’t treat Koch with kid gloves, but he did give him ample opportunity to express himself without interruption. I was expecting either spin or bravado from Koch; that would seem to fit the image of him I’ve seen in much of the media. Instead, what I heard was a thoughtful, sincere, and historically astute perspective that admitted to failures and didn’t claim to have all the answers. That’s not to say that I agree with or support all his views or that I don’t think there is an aspect of intentional image construction happening. Just that I was surprised by the humanity and humility conveyed. The leadership lessons here are important reminders for me:

  1. Everyone has a story. I can easily judge and categorize people into convenient stereotypes and forget their fundamental humanity. I can disagree with Charles Koch without demonizing him.
  2. Learning is better than assuming. I was going to skip these episodes, confident that nothing Charles Koch could say would be of value to me. I was wrong about that. His business philosophy and some of his policy perspectives are well worth my consideration.
  3. Break the Echo Chamber. I have a tendency to only listen to those who’s views I already know and agree with. While reinforcing my convictions is a good habit, I need to be intentional about exploring ideas, possibilities, and people who differ from me so that my approach remains pliable and open to truth.
  4. Discussion is always better than debate. Taking the time to genuinely listen to these podcasts with curiosity rather than just to support my assumptions was worthwhile. The same is true in other differences of opinion. Most perspectives have some sincerity behind them, and starting from a combative posture prevents learning on both sides.
Leaders with a short term approach can achieve quick results by dismissing and ridiculing those with opposing positions. Being radical and polarizing makes for compelling takes and can bring an influx of passionate support. But it’s a fool’s game in the long run. The greatest impact comes from those who do the harder work of seeking to understand the reasons behind the views and find ways to connect rather than attack. Common ground isn’t always possible, but failing to diligently look for it limits the potential for winning people over or finding a higher possibility. The cynic in me wants to dismiss Charles Koch’s interviews as some kind of strategic manipulation with dark ulterior motives. That may yet be the case. But I continue to believe that the risks of optimism are better than the losses of suspicion. When have you had to change your opinion of someone?