On a hazy, late summer day in 1989, one great man delivered an era-defining speech that precipitated the collapse of the tyranny known as the Soviet Union. Those of us of a certain age, cannot forget where we were that day when Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, on a visit to Randall’s supermarket in Clear Lake, TX uttered those now immortal 11 words, “Even the Politburo doesn't have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev."
We all know the story from there. It is notable, that, in his autobiography, Yeltsin credits his visit to Randall’s with shattering his view of communism. Two years later, he left the Communist party and started the economic reforms intended to improve the lives of Soviet citizens. He writes of that supermarket visit, “When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people." He continued, "That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it."
Think about what happened in that Houston suburb on September 16
th, 1989. Was it the food? Apparently, according to those who were there, Yeltsin was particularly taken with the frozen Jell-O pudding pops. Was it the free (yes free!!) cheese samples handed out to all, not just visiting heads of state, that captivated his imagination? Quite possibly. Food is a huge motivator and people are moved by the smell, taste, feel, sight (and even the sound) of their favorite meals. Notice, however, that the first thing Yeltsin talks about is the choice. The fact that the average person in a little-known American suburb has a choice even greater than Mr. Gorbachev himself, was the tipping point in Yeltsin’s journey from apparatchik to reformer.
So, let’s talk about choice. It is a lot more abstract than food. You can’t eat choice. It will not sustain you from breakfast to dinner. You cannot pick it up and transport it and refrigerate it until next week. You cannot export it or import it. Can you buy choice? Yeah maybe, but not everywhere and certainly not in 1989 Soviet Russia. But choice must be the key. Just add choice to a society and, there you go! Free cheese and Jell-O for all. But is choice enough? And even if it was, how do you “add choice” – and who does the adding and where? And how much? Is there such a thing as too much choice? What is just the right amount? Who decides? Indeed, who chooses the right amount of choice? I am no philosopher, but this discussion is beginning to sound like something presented by Socrates that would have annoyed the ancient Greeks.
Maybe there is something more fundamental than choice at issue here. Something that Yeltsin could not quite formulate because his vocabulary was a bit limited and a bit rusty. I am not talking about his English; he spoke in Russian through an interpreter. I am talking about the constructs he carried around in his head; constructs built over a lifetime in a world quite different from ours. You see, I think that Randall’s supermarket was crammed with, overflowing with, packed to the gills with – not food – but freedom. And there among the press, the shoppers, the air-conditioning, the produce, and the Jell-O pudding pops, Yeltsin could not quite put his finger on that concept. You cannot blame him. It is like asking a Frenchman to describe a British pork pie.
Do most of the readers of this letter take freedom for granted? Probably. Our country was founded on the pursuit of freedom. Relax, this column is not intended to lecture you on the American revolution. Rather, I encourage you to consider that freedom is one of the great human enablers and motivators. It enables things like Randall’s supermarket and the unimaginable markets we see today for all manner of goods and services. It also motivates people to do some crazy things, like sail across oceans with no clear destination. There are those who have willingly given up food for freedom. When you build a business or any human endeavor, I encourage you to think about the freedom content. Are you allowing enough to your team and baking enough into your relationships to really get the most out of them? Are you recognizing that freedom is a motivator for your customers? Failure to do this may result in your status being reduced to that of a 1980’s Soviet head of state. Not great.