In a few weeks’ time hundreds of students finish their tertiary education and enter the world of work. Their priority will probably be that of gaining financial independence which will eventually help them to have the lifestyle they always dreamt about.

For a few, independence has a broader meaning. They want to assert their personality and individuality. They want to establish themselves as free thinkers with ambitions to lead rather than be led. These will eventually become leaders in the organisations they join whether in business, politics or other human activities. They will be looking for role models but also identify those who, despite their academic qualifications, decide to lead a peaceful life by giving up their right to be independent thinkers.

The higher people move up in the organisation hierarchy, the more they will experience pressure to bend to the will of the rich and powerful. They often have to deal with politicians who even in a democracy behave no better than autocratic demi-gods. However, there are shining examples of what independent thinking is all about. 

Mario Draghi, European Central Bank president, is one shining example of how independent thinkers work. Draghi is an outwardly calm person but with a steely determination not to cave in to political pressure. In 2016 he came under immense pressure from German politicians for his strategy to ease monetary policy to stimulate EU economies to growth.

His defence was disarmingly simple: “We obey the law, not politicians”. Chancellor Angela Merkel, like most politicians trying to justify their interference with the independence of institutions claimed that the criticism of Draghi by her political colleagues was justified. Politicians, she argued, have the right and duty to defend the interest of ordinary people.

Being an independent thinker comes with the risk of being labelled as strange or opinionated

Draghi once again reacted with calm and diplomacy. “Criticism of a certain type could be viewed as endangering the independence of the ECB, and this would delay investment,” he said.

More recently, Italian vice premier Luigi Di Maio criticised Draghi for not behaving like a loyal Italian by supporting the Italian government’s budget based on substantial public expenditure. Di Maio is reported to have never held a proper job so far in his life and today is trying to teach lessons in good fiscal governance to an expert who has probably saved the EU from major depression in the last few years.

Not everyone can emulate Draghi and other independent thinkers whose public role is protected by statutory guarantees of independence from political influence. Those who occupy a post in middle management are expected to manage, that is, do what is expected of them. However, leaders of independent organisations are expected to say and do what is right, and not what their bosses want. The sad reality is, however, that autocratic bosses will use their power to silence independent thinkers who are allergic to book licking.

Being an independent thinker does not mean being one who thinks they are above and beyond everyone else just because they are different, or always doubting and confronting others. It does mean, however, questioning everything, not necessarily out loud, but question the assumptions, questions the conclusions, question the question.

The ability to think critically, rather than being critical, is a powerful tool of independent thinkers. Honest people who are confronted with such an attitude will react well when confronted with independent thinkers. However, the demi-gods of this world who are in a position of power try to undermine those who do not accept their orders. They will, for instance, lead stories to the media that will defame those who do not swear unconditional loyalty to their rogue bosses.

Education alone cannot shape independent thinking. You can teach people a certain level of knowledge or skills, but you cannot teach them to think or how to be themselves. The road that leads you to become an independent thinker is one of discovery where one has to have the courage to say occasionally: “I do not know”.

Being an independent thinker comes with the risk of being labelled as strange or opinionated. It is a human instinct for the majority of people to conform to the opinion of others. Sticking out your neck to disagree on specific issues exposes you to the scorn of those who thrive on the submissiveness of those they lead.

The quote from Hamlet, “To thine own self be true” is what should motivate young people in their search for a meaningful role in society.


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