Craigslist controversy underscores balancing act of leadership

By On Leadership
Sunday, September 12, 2010; G02

Marty Linsky, a co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates, teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School. He blogs at Linsky on Leadership.

Leadership is contextual, not binary. What makes leadership difficult is that it requires choosing between deeply held values that are in conflict.

Presumably, Newmark believes in an open Internet and in curbing the sexual exploitation of teenage girls. Without being cynical, but being realistic, I would suggest that for Newmark, keeping Craigslist alive and thriving would be a higher value than either of the other two in almost all imaginable circumstances (see, for example, Google and China). Sacrificing your body for the cause is sometimes, but rarely, necessary. Noble defeat, more commonly called martyrdom, is sometimes required but is not the only way leadership can be manifested.

Leadership also requires you to be committed to your cause, here freedom of expression, and at the same time be open to the possibility that there is a better idea out there.

Newmark saw the handwriting on the wall. He was not willing to risk sacrificing the franchise on the altar of freedom to advertise sexual exploitation. Good for him.

And good for the activists who were smart and skillful enough to raise the heat and force him to make a choice he would have preferred to avoid. They, not Newmark, exercised the real leadership here.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is a professor of organizational behavior at the graduate school of business, Stanford University.

Craig Newmark and his colleagues are doing the right thing in trying to stick by their ideals. From everything I've read, the law is quite clear: Publishers of advertising content are not responsible for all the legal implications of the content they publish. Moreover, the efforts to crack down on Craigslist won't be successful in accomplishing the intended objectives. Telephone directories run advertisements for escort services, some of which are undoubtedly fronts for prostitution. Papers run personal ads, and I doubt if they check to be sure the ads aren't being used to sell illegal products or services. The principle that Newmark is fighting for is essential for free speech and the operation of the Internet.

As Newmark and others have noted, even if and when the adult-services section is closed (as it has been temporarily with the word "censored") the ads will move to other sections of the site or to other sites. Policing should be left to the police and not be the responsibility of companies that lack the resources and expertise to do the task.

Kathryn Kolbert, a public-interest lawyer and journalist, is the director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College.

The larger decision about whether Craigslist should or should not accept these types of ads is not really a First Amendment question, but rather a business decision that must balance the revenue boon against concerns raised by some consumers that the ads are morally offensive to them and will thus stop doing business with the site. Will continuation of the ads tarnish the brand to the detriment of its future business operations?

In the early days of "alternative newspapers," the Village Voice and other papers faced similar attacks but today freely publish personal ads. Although some argue that these ads facilitate prostitution and casual sex and undermine journalistic expertise, it is hard to see any evidence of that. Once the election season is over, it is doubtful anyone but the most ardent will care about Craigslist's personal ads.

Sam Goodgame is one of 13 cadets and four instructors from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who take on the weekly 'On Leadership' questions. (Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.)

Most Americans would agree that a free marketplace needs a government umpire. Tension exists between the often-opposing end states of liberty and equity. Unchecked liberty is Hobbesian state-of-nature anarchy and unchecked equity is extreme socialism -- both of which most Americans find unpalatable.

The liberty of an enterprise to operate unrestrained and the resulting venue for child sex trafficking is a delicate issue, but it also has ample precedent. In the context of eradicating hunger, for example, to what extent should the government be a free fish distributor as opposed to a tackle shop?

In this case, it will be up to the umpire to decide how unalienable human rights fall in line with the rights to unrestricted trade. As is the case with most difficult ethical questions, the choice in this case is not clean; the duty of the leader is in finding the lesser of two evils.

Doug Guthrie, dean of the School of Business at George Washington University, is an expert in the fields of management, economic reform in China, leadership and corporate governance.

In cases like this one, where leaders claim commitment to core values, the essence of leadership boils down to the honesty and candor with which the leader approaches the issue. In other words, it is not about sticking to core principles on the one hand or bending to social needs and values on the other, but instead about honesty and consistency.

In today's economy, we all too often see corporations and leaders using principled arguments when they are convenient and when they are profitable. The question of the essence of leadership, in this case, boils down to how transparent and consistent Craig Newmark has been about the issues of openness of the Internet and freedom of expression. It is not clear how much Newmark has really thought through these issues or articulated a clear set of values and principles to which the organization always holds true. (At least it is not evident from the Craigslist site.)

Also, the skills that give life to an entrepreneurial idea and the skills of leadership are different things. Entrepreneurs like Newmark are often ill-prepared to lead organizations in these complex ethical environments. Leadership is about navigating complex economic, political, social and ethical environments, and it requires that individuals have spent time thinking about the principles that guide the organizations they are running. Adopting principles for convenience or profit is weak leadership at best.

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