Snapchat, Stanford, and Lessons in Self-Governance

The phrase Lead By Example on a cork notice boardSnapchat has become well known as a service that allows users to exchange pictures and videos that disappear within seconds. The company’s founder, though, has found himself caught in a firestorm of criticism over emails he sent four to five years ago while attending Stanford University that, far from disappearing, have come back to haunt him.

Last week, messages were published that Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel sent as an undergraduate to members of his Kappa Sigma fraternity, in which he makes crude sexual remarks about women in sororities, calls one group of women “sororisluts,” and disparagingly refers to members of another fraternity as gay.

The 23-year-old apologized for his emails, saying he was “obviously mortified and embarrassed that my idiotic e-mails during my fraternity days were made public” and that “I have no excuse. I’m sorry I wrote them at the time and I was a jerk to have written them. They in no way reflect who I am today or my views towards women.”

Shortly after, Stanford University Provost John Etchemendy emailed the school community saying he found Spiegel’s comments “abhorrent.” But rather than simply use this as an opportunity to criticize, Etchemendy saw it as a learning opportunity. The lesson? What was so alarming wasn’t just that such offensive messages were sent, but rather that they were “also received, and no doubt received by others who found them crude, offensive, and demeaning to women – others who had already matured enough to see them, in fact, as worse than ‘idiotic.’” What was glaring to Etchemendy wasn’t simply the bigotry exhibited in the emails, but the seeming indifference of those who read the emails and presumably did nothing

This silence, Etchemendy mentions, is “what concerns me most…We can choose to turn a blind eye to such statements and chalk them up to youthful indiscretion. Or we can be more courageous, and affirmatively reject such behavior whenever and wherever we see it, even — no, especially — if it comes from a friend, a classmate, or a colleague.” Why is this so important? Because, as Edmund Burke poignantly put it, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Etchemendy’s urging of the Stanford community to “all learn something from this” is a passionate call for self-governance. The idea that it’s not simply the job of a select few to be morally courageous – i.e. to have the strength to stand up for what is right – but of everyone who bears witness to wrong-doing, is at the heart of Etchemendy’s message. “The opposite of love is not hate,” as Elie Wiesel said, “it’s indifference.” With moral courage, Stanford can create “the kind of university culture we can all be proud of, all of the time,” a culture that doesn’t overlook or excuse behavior like Spiegel’s, but takes a stand against it and betters the community in the process.

This moral courage requires people to be self-governing: to rigorously live their values, to stay true to their principles, and to call on their moral foundation to guide all that they do, from their decision-making to their behavior. It’s in this way that people build the moral muscle to discern right from wrong, to speak out against abhorrent behavior, and to stand up for what’s right. And as it turns out, this not only leads to better individual behavior, but to more successful and resilient organizations as well. As the HOW Report found, organizations that are self-governing and characterized by high levels of trust, values, commitment to a purpose, and collaboration hold significant advantages over their peers, such as higher innovation, stronger employee loyalty, higher customer satisfaction, stronger financial performance, and lower levels of misconduct.

In his closing thoughts, Etchemendy captures the essence of a self-governing mindset when he asks all members of the Stanford community to reflect on “our obligations to one another” and to “strive to be role models in our interactions with others.” It seems this lesson in self-governance would be a good one for Evan Spiegel to heed as well if he is to show that who he is today is truly different from his younger self. Ironically, whereas Spiegel’s past emails read like a young man trying to show his buddies how tough he was, real strength is demonstrated by the nerve to call out inexcusable ignorance, and the audacity to take a stand against it, when no one else will.

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