They’ll lean in and share their thoughts in hushed tones. The modern Stasi could be at the next table, you see. ‘I am sick of this,’ your CEO friend will confide. ‘I had to hire a head of diversity, inclusion and equity. They don’t solve problems, they create them.’

Your old buddy may even be bold enough to criticise the quasi-religion of the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) movement.

‘The US head office wants us to go carbon neutral by 2030.’ If he’s being particularly candid, he’ll wonder aloud why he caves to pressure to socially engineer his workforce based on sexual orientation. There’s a good chance he’ll shake his head at the ferocity with which wokeness degrades productivity. And if your mate has gone this far, he might even whisper his horror at promoting people based on race. ‘I spend half my week doing this!’

Then, after your coffee catch-up, he’ll adjust his collar, clear his throat, and change form, back into company-man mode (almost Terminator style) before heading back to the office. Or, more likely, to a workshop run by a gender studies PhD where ‘whiteness’ is ‘interrogated’. His honesty wouldn’t be welcome there.

Cowering wimps

Surely these highly qualified, experienced leaders aren’t cowering wimps, you may respond. Can they really all be championing this disastrous hootenanny and taking a knee to wokery, while quietly hating every minute? Well, not all. Some have got drunk smelling the cork of post-modernist wine. Signalling your ‘virtue’ to fawning audiences can also be addictive.

But I submit that most CEOs prostrate themselves to the woke mob against their will. A study published late last year lends academic gravity to this claim. Nicolai J. Foss from the Copenhagen Business School and Peter G. Klein from Baylor University argue as follows:

‘There is little evidence of systematic support for woke ideas among executives and the population at large, and going woke does not appear to improve company performance. Why, then are so many firms embracing woke policies and attitudes? We suggest that going woke is an emergent strategy that is largely shaped by middle managers rather than owners, top managers, or employees.’

It seems that many youngsters have emerged from universities in recent years with their minds overburdened by Foucault, Freire, and Piketty. They are now HR managers in banks, creatives at advertising agencies, and heads of department at schools. And they’re activists, intent on bludgeoning shareholders, colleagues, bosses, and customers into submission.

I don’t suggest that CEOs who submit to wokery are entirely cowardly. They are brave in many ways. They deal with staggering pressure, make tough decisions and suck up all sorts of criticism. The problem is the nature of progressive retaliation. They play dirty. They are trying to cancel JK Rowling for asserting that biological sex exists. The Harry Potter author seems to be hanging on. But she is JK Rowling. And she has made her billions. CEOs are paupers by comparison, and they have a different incentive structure.  

Hide your disagreeement

Offered an average JSE super cap CEO salary of nearly R28 million, you’d probably also be content to hide your disagreement and dismay. To put in a few years in the plush corner office, then retire. By that stage it doesn’t matter (to you) if the economy’s ruin has been abetted by your cowardice.

Of course, I don’t ascribe a special cowardice gene to CEOs. Like most human failings, it happens gradually. First you put up with other people excluding applicants from job opportunities because of the colour of their skin. Just temporarily. Just this once. Like that first puff on a cigarette, it tastes bad, but everyone’s doing it. Then you sort of acknowledge that there is some valid reason for promotion decisions being decided by presence of ovaries. After all, there is a higher goal attached to this. Pretty soon you’re hiring consultants to ‘massage’ the green credentials of your colliery. But by the time you’re up for that senior role yourself, you realise you’re as much of a swamp creature as everyone else.

At this advanced stage, if you suggest BEE is inefficient for everyone, and insulting to beneficiaries and victims alike, you’re outside of the club. Merit-based decision-making is ‘regressive’ in these circles. Any attempt to balance environmental impact with the tremendous benefits of efficient, cost-effective, reliable hydrocarbons attracts cries of ‘CLIMATE DENIER’ – whatever that means. Even asking for evidence that exorbitant diversity consultants will improve results (and not sow seeds of unnecessary discontent) can abruptly end an otherwise bright career path.

We’ve seen the wrath that honesty on these issues attracts. James Damore engaged earnestly while an engineer at Google. His now infamous ‘Google memo’ provided meticulously researched and well-reasoned arguments on topics like sex differences. He showed that, on average, men are more likely to have important traits that drive success at tasks like coding and building things. He made very sure not to deny that many women have all the talents of a brilliant engineer, and in fact are brilliant engineers. He was fired by Google and put through the usual wringer by the woke mob.

Cogently contest

Cogently contesting his arguments is more than fine. It is necessary in order to work towards better answers. The only thing his opponents didn’t do was to cogently contest his arguments.  They just shouted very loudly and angrily.

Locally, Eskom board member Mteto Nyati recently spoke out against affirmative action at the failing state-owned power utility. All manner of councils and parties and keyboard warriors shouted at him very loudly and angrily. They did not present cogent arguments rebutting him.

So, your old chum from your MBA days lives out the prisoner’s dilemma (your friend will have learned about this in Stats 101). Except, while the traditional formulation means the self-interested best move is for all captives to confess to the crime in return for reduced sentences, this is a secrecy game. Deny, deny, deny. Hide your genuine opinions. If all corporate go-getters keep their traps shut long enough, they have a shot at winning the game. And if they keep up the charade for long enough in the coveted CEO role, they’ll be settled in Hermanus before the house of cards collapses.  

Spending your twilight years in wine and sea country is worth sacrificing for. Who among us isn’t working for that privilege? But it depends on your priorities. Are you selling your integrity for the best local varietals and a view of Grotto Beach?

[Image: Gerhard from Pixabay]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Ian Macleod studied business science at the University of Cape Town and journalism at Rhodes University. He completed his MBA at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). Macleod consults on a variety of economic topics, writes about sport and endeavours to speak truth on the culture wars. He has run seven Comrades Marathons.