Being Apolitical Is an Illusion

One month ago, Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase, a cryptocurrency startup innovating in the finance space, published a blog post, which began: “There have been a lot of difficult events in the world this year: a global pandemic, shelter in place, social unrest, widespread protests and riots, and west coast wildfires. On top of that, we have a contentious U.S. election on the horizon.” While this opener is certainly nothing new, what came next set off a firestorm across Silicon Valley and represents an increasingly stark fork in the road that is emerging for leaders across our society (as well as for those of us who coach, educate, and support them).

Mr. Armstrong expressed concern that the difficult events of our day were becoming a distraction at Coinbase and that organizational productivity was at risk. To mitigate that risk, he announced a new set of HR policies and strategic guidelines instructing employees to minimize their attention on “broader societal issues” and to uphold an “apolitical culture” going forward. Those who took issue with this apolitical direction would need to resign within the week (a severance package was made available). At least 5% of employees quit within the week.

Discussions about this move, including both support and backlash, have been circulating around the web this month. Some have questioned the strategic coherence of an organization working on an issue like “economic freedom for all,” while simultaneously enforcing an apolitical culture. Others have noted that a workplace requiring employees to be apolitical would only seem reasonable to people currently benefiting from society’s status quo. They argue that attempting to be apolitical is, in fact, its own political stance. These are important critiques to explore.

Underlying this entire conversation is, of course, the suggestion that it is even possible for an organization embedded in society today to operate with social neutrality (nonpartisanship is something distinct). As someone who is educating aspiring future leaders, I find the suggestion implausible, problematic, and unfortunately prevalent. Even within the Kennedy School, an institution explicitly dedicated to training leaders for the social good, I have heard people talk about teaching and learning “management skills” without “getting into the politics” when so often, in the real world, political analysis is a huge part of effective strategic management.

As Mr. Armstrong said, times right now are very difficult indeed. Given the current state of things, they may get even tougher in the future. I can sympathize with the self-preserving instinct to “step away” from the fray and complexity of this current moment in order to get “our own” work done. It may be tempting, but I would argue that it is an illusion. No matter what comes next, we must at least begin our work with the premise that our actions affect the whole.

The best performing leaders of our future will get this interdependence and they will lean into it with courage. I hope you all will support them. The social challenges of our time require it. 

Together with you,

Brittany Butler signature

Brittany Butler
Executive Director, SICI
Adjunct Lecturer, HKS