Freedom of speech is written into the American Constitution, but apparently freedom to contradict your boss is less enshrined.

President Obama sacked his US military commander in Afghanistan after he was reported in Rolling Stone magazine criticising the administration.  Although General Stanley McChrystal apologised publically saying “it was a mistake reflecting poor judgement”, Obama has fired him anyway on the basis that as Commander in Chief he will not tolerate “division” within his team.

This episode is another step along the road to disillusionment for me about the Obama administration which seemed to promise so much.  Some say that McChrystal was unpopular with the administration anyway because he didn’t promise a swift end to the war which matched Obama’s hopes and his promises to the electorate. 

A mistake in judgement in talking to a journalist is not that hard to forgive.  Journalists are notoriously cunning creatures who seduce you into saying what you really think and then go and publish it.  The words “this is off the record of course” are the first you should express in most interviews.  A mistake in judgement in talking to a journalist does not make you a bad war general.

You shouldn’t have to always agree with your boss to keep your job.  Your ability to run a war (or say negotiate a TV campaign, or plan a media schedule), should not be judged on the basis of your ability to say the right thing or agree with your boss in every case.

Of course solidarity is important, but so is the ability to work through conflict and genuine disagreements.  If saying the right thing is more important than excelling at your job, it is a small step to having the right connections, knowing the right people and having the right set of relatives being the overriding criteria for getting ahead.

In 1968 Kurt Vonnegut wrote a brilliant novel and satire about war called Slaughterhouse 5.  Its hero Billy Pilgrim comes across a story about a visitor from outer space who explains “the flaw” in the story of Christ in the New Testament.  The intent of the Gospels is surely to teach people to be merciful to all people, even the lowest of the low.  The problem is that Christ – who doesn’t look like much – is actually the son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe.  Readers understand this, so when they come to the crucifixion they actually think “Oh, boy – they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time”.  The visitor from outer space gives people a new Gospel.  In it the Christ figure really is nobody.  And a pain in the neck to lots of better connected people. And he says exactly what he thinks.  As a result he gets nailed to a cross.  At which point the heavens open and God says this “From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!”.

Whoever you are you should be able to say what you think, assuming you can back it up, to your boss, without fear.

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