My friend Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, says “when you put signs up, or make rules against people, it’s bad for business.” He went on to explain the reason for this. “It messes with the thing this country is about: freedom. It’s not about the moral issue, or about who should or who should not get married. Or whether a woman can choose. It is about what you do to the perception of ‘my freedom.’“
A couple years earlier I was in his downtown office in Washington, D.C. where Operation HOPE is also located, and I noticed that he had two honorary doctorate degrees from HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) on his office wall. And so, I asked Jim one day, “why do you like Black people so much?” His response was classic.
Paraphrasing here, he said “John, I really don’t (really like Black people, or not). I just want America to win.” Boom. That’s the right answer. It had nothing to do with race.
I sort of fell in love with the man’s spirit and sense of base humanity right then and there, in that moment. ‘What a great American he is,’ I thought to myself. We need 1,000 more business leaders just like him.
He knows two things that are worth sharing.
1. You need everyone to have access to your product, service or business. Everyone should feel welcome, because everyone is a potential future customer. When they don’t, that only hurts you and your business, which in time hurts America.
Remember, in 1830, the state with the most millionaires in the country was actually Mississippi. It was basically the economic Silicon Valley of the nation back then. But today, Mississippi is literally the poorest nation in the country. And that turn of events is all abouttheir choices, and about who they actively chose (for far too long) to keep outside of the fair-play and ‘let’s prosper together’ conversation there.
This was a failed business model built on fear and rules against people.
2. American prosperity is not about white people, or black people, or Latino or Asian or Native American people. It’s about all people, rowing the boat of American opportunity and American prosperity in the same direction. Alternatively, this is about wherever you happen to call your home (country), because you should genuinely love wherever you live, just like I love America.
It’s about understanding that the new competitor for your job or business is no longer your next door neighbor; be they black, white, red brown or yellow. Today your competitor is China, India, Africa, and every place else that wants to take your stuff.
It’s a realization that we are all in this mess together.
On this point the annals of history have already been written. Being against people is just plain bad for business, here or anywhere else the modern world over. Making matters worse, when you find someone making rules against other people, it is usually rooted in fear and insecurity. Their fear and insecurity.
We need to keep in mind what makes America great, and that is not mere laws or regulations, or big buildings and small cool tech shops, nor structured communities, cities and states.
What makes America great is not capitalism or free enterprise, nor our amazing higher education system which attracts students from all over the world.
It is not our national inter-connected roadway and transportation system, nor our financial system, or our technological advancements. It’s not because the Internet was created here.
All of these things are good, but they are simply how we organize ourselves around the concept of freedom.
Freedom is what makes America arguably the greatest nation on the planet. Now, to be clear, I’m not picking a silly fight here between nations, or even people of strong national opinion.
I am not saying that America is perfect (far from it actually). That is not my point. We screw up every single day here in my country. I am not even taking sides. What I am saying is after traveling to 100 countries the world over, this is simply my statement of positive aspiration,and my own personal feelings with it.
But here is the thing. You can actually go to our White House, and you can choose to loudly tell off our president, from right outside his home and business address. If you find him at some public event, you can choose to denounce him or his policies if you like, right there in front of him. Note to self: I don’t really suggest you do either of these things (smile).
But the worse thing that will come of it is your girlfriends will tell you with amusement that they saw you acting out and acting up on the 11pm news last night. Now try that most other places in the world ~ and you may disappear the next day. Freedom matters.
And this is my hope: that each and every person reading this piece should want to believe this aspirational statement is also true about their home country. To genuinely believe thattheir country is arguably the greatest nation on the planet. That would be a good thing.
And so, if we believe this ~ then we must make sure we are guarding and protecting that delicate sense of freedom at every private doorstep, every public city step, at every business center, at every local government office address, even at every police station.
We should likewise protect it in our own decision making, and in our hearts and minds too.
Freedom (the concept I define as self-determination) is universal the world over. But the only place in the world where freedom is the center-place of a nation’s business plan is right here in America. Which means we are even more vulnerable.
America’s freedom is our strength, but it is also so very fragile. We mess with it everyday.
And as amazing as it may be, it can also easily be chipped away at; one emotional ‘stay-out’ sign, or I’m against you policy at a time.
When people start coming for your neighbor — an additional question should also hit you.When do they come for me?
We are all in this together.
John Hope Bryant is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), and is the only 2010-2012 bestselling business author in America who is also African-American. His newest book, due out May, 2014, is HOW THE POOR CAN SAVE CAPITALISM, and will be published byBerrett Koehler Publishing. Bryant is a Member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, and co-chair for Project 5117, which is a plan for the rebirth of underserved America.
Photo Credit: Martin Burns