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RE-THINKING MONEY, RELIGION & POLITICS

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Cruelty and the Idiot in the Room


Jay Robert (J.B.) Pritzker currently serves as the 43rd governor of the State of Illinois. A businessman before assuming his current responsibilities of governor, he’s a member of the Pritzker family. The Pritzker family owns the worldwide hospitality company Hyatt and the governor himself has an estimated net worth of $3.6B.


Given his social location (born, raised, and trained within extreme wealth), I found two minutes of his commencement address to the Northwestern University Class of 2023 dramatically insightful. Not just because of his message but because of its values application to our daily lives in the marketplace. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised as he was addressing newly minted college graduates poised to start their careers.


It’s in those two minutes that the governor instructs these graduates how to identify the idiot in the room and how to identify who is most likely the smartest person in the room. Here’s the link for the governor’s speech and the two minutes I refer to run from 10:09 – 12:15. If you’re not at a place you can watch or listen, here’s the dialogue from those two minutes:


Image Credit: Deleece Cook on Unsplash


"No, the best way to spot an idiot: look for the person who is cruel.


Let me explain. When we see someone who doesn't look like us or sound like us or act like us or love like us or live like us, the first thought that crosses almost everyone's brain is rooted in either fear or judgment or both. That's evolution. We survived as a species by being suspicious of things that we aren't familiar with.


In order to be kind, we have to shut down that animal instinct and force our brain to travel a different pathway. Empathy and compassion are evolved states of being. They require the mental capacity to step past our most primal urges.


This may be a surprising assessment because somewhere along the way in the last few years, our society has come to believe that weaponized cruelty is part of some well thought out master plan. Cruelty is seen by some as an adroit cudgel to gain power. Empathy and kindness are considered weak.


Many important people look at the vulnerable only as rungs on a ladder to the top. I'm here to tell you that when someone's path through this world is marked with acts of cruelty, they have failed the first test of an advanced society.


They have never forced their animal brain to evolve past its first instinct. They have never forged new mental pathways to overcome their own instinctual fears and so their thinking and problem solving will lack the imagination and creativity that the kindest people have in spades.


Over my many years in politics and business, I have found one thing to be universally true - the kindest person in the room is often the smartest."


What do we make of a leader, with the established wealth and influence of Governor Pritzker, who so boldly and publicly proclaims a litmus test that upends our usual training and perceptions? Haven’t we been mostly taught that the smartest person in the room is the one who takes a scorched earth approach to winning and claws their way to being king of the mountain? Don’t we assume this person has the highest IQ?


We were taught wrong, and we assumed wrong. Turns out, that’s the idiot in the room because he or she has such low EQ. A key element of EQ is empathy, as Daniel Goleman has most recently taught us. Adam Smith, in his first world-wide best seller (yes, he had a first book titled Theory of Moral Sentiments on which he built Wealth of Nations) recognized the same more than 250 years ago and illustrated it with his construct of the Impartial Spectator. Wealth of Nations isn’t properly understood or applied, nor is capitalism, except through the empathic eyes and actions of the Impartial Spectator.


So, we can praise a leader like Governor Pritzker for pointing out, clearly and plainly like the boy who bravely proclaimed the emperor has no clothes, and Adam Smith before that, that the person whose path is marked with cruelty is the idiot in the room.


Anyone in your organization whose path is marked with cruelty but is mistakenly praised as the smartest in the room? You know who they are. How much cruelty is in your path? Like gravity, we all have some cruelty in our path so you can’t hide that fact. Rather, like an recovering alcoholic with a 30-year sobriety pin, hopefully your last act of cruelty is ancient history. If not, forgive yourself and begin – today, right now – to become the smartest person in the room. Especially the breakroom, conference room, and board room.




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