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Kristian Willmott Head of Marketing

In defence of openness: lessons from the Club

In 1764, the talented artist Joshua Reynolds and the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson would form
‘the club’. An unremarkable tavern called the Turks Head along Gerrard Street in London would be
the location where some of the greatest minds of the 18th century would meet each Thursday. This
club included the likes of Adam Smith, the father of economics and Edmund Burke who was one of
the greatest political orators in British History. The group would go on to grow in time from the
original 9 members. In doing so, they would shape an age of intellectual discussion. What was
striking about this club was the extent of the diverse spectrum of professions in the club, as it was
composed of artists, philosophers, economists, politicians, writers, industrialists and businessmen. In
addition to this, unlike other clubs in the same era, the club represented people from all sorts of socio-
economic backgrounds. The club would become a battleground for ideas, a field to exercise different
perspectives and a church to preach a line of philosophical concepts. In a world driven and divided by
the polarising effects of politics, we could learn a lot from ‘the clubs’ frank tolerance of opposing
ideas. Too much debate nowadays is concentrated within echo chambers of thought that instead of
challenging ideas and concepts, wraps ideas in a dogmatic Kevlar that raises an issue beyond
intellectual accountability. Open discussion is the yolk of business road mapping, the lifeline of
coherence in a community and at the heart of communication.

At the epicentre of classical liberalism is the belief that debate and reform are the engine room for
human progression. For a healthy debate to occur, there needs to be a commitment to openness and
tolerance to ideas. This makes for the marketplace of ideas, a realm that is free for people to challenge
concepts, identify contradictions, freely exchange viewpoints and wade in various intellectual
discourses. Like many marketplaces, it has fallen victim to protectionism that curbs debate over some
concepts, red lines have been drawn on what should be open to discussion and the concept of an
objectifiable truth that used to hold arguments to account has been looted of its meaning. As a
consequence, it has led to an intellectual space that has been suffocated of ideas and has blanketed
thoughts in self-censorship. Ultimately, this will have a profound impact on our ability to innovate
and understand the challenges which demand collective action. Additionally, it is waging a war of
attrition on our basic willingness to trust, communicate and digest criticism. In a world where we
rarely hear opposing views, it makes us less open to new forms of information and encourages
discussion to take the form of trench warfare, when it should better resemble a dance of wits. It is this
intellectual waltz that allows for innovation to flourish, political compromise to occur and business to
remain agile. Open discussion is the biggest tool that business has in their arsenal, without it their
competitiveness will erode and their stake in the future will wither. Decision making should not be
immune to being challenged, employees should feel free to express their vision of the future and
business leaders should be open to discussing industry challenges beyond the confines of their
boardroom. On that note, businesses that do communicate a lot within and outside their industry can
benefit from learning from other company’s mistakes, challenges and solutions. Having a space where
leaders can benchmark ideas in an environment carefully curated for open discussion is essential for
building trusted connections and enabling ideas to be fully exposed to intellectual critique. It is in this
light, ideas should be fully exposed to rigorous debate, as how else would you separate a good idea
from a bad one?

I must stipulate, that not all ideas should be greeted with open applause, as not all ideas have equal
weight. Some topics have quite simply proven not worthy of being considered. This may seem a
contradiction, but it is only because of our previous commitment to open discussion that history has
been able to exile various concepts, topics and ideas to an intellectual cavity beneath Tartarus. In the
battle of ideas, some have quite rightly been defeated but this has occurred only because we were able
to tolerate discussion on them in the first place. For precisely this reason, if we are to hope that we can
continue to separate the good ideas from the bad, we must re-commit to open discussion, the tolerance
of different perspectives and the freedom of exchange. The best way to root out toxic viewpoints is to
unleash the gravitational down thrust that intellectual discussion can unleash. We will all benefit from
a diversity of viewpoints, an exploration of the human library of knowledge and accepting that our
beliefs should be exposed to an intellectual inspection. It will inject a boost of dynamism to a business, cultivate a healthy culture and provide people with a stake in the future of their workplace.
Industry challenges will be overcome by the exchange of ideas, political divisions will be bridged
with a deeper knowledge of other perspectives and bad ideas will be dragged out of the shadows by
open discussion. It is in the defence of openness that we can unwrap the barriers to genuine
progressive thinking. For its time, ‘The Club’ represented a diversity that could be seldom found
elsewhere (by modern standards it wasn’t due to the notable absence of women and BAME
perspectives) but their biggest triumph was its binding commitment to an intellectual discussion, its
toleration to conflicting views and admirable cultivation of the free exchange of ideas.

To summarise, openness is the foundation of a healthy society that can stimulate the desirable flows
of innovation, collaboration and creative destruction. It is essential in weeding out the bad ideas and
growing the good ones. The act of open discussion creates a connection for people to place their flag
in the decisions of the future. As a consequence, it can forge a culture that is more inclusive and can
turn workers into stakeholders. Additionally, in the choppy waters of running a business, open
discussion can serve as a vaccine for the challenges that may be on the horizon. A captain too busy
searching for a break in a storm may miss the rocks below that a crew member has spotted from the
rigging. Lastly, an open attitude to the flow of ideas is the most useful tool that a business has in
developing innovative solutions, capturing growth and remaining in a forward position when
competing with other companies. The intellectuals of the ‘The Club’ in the 18th century understood the
merits to open discussion, it is no wonder their ideas are still shaping attitudes centuries later.

Written by Henri Willmott