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"Skin in the game"

There is still some serious tension in our industry at the moment, with controversies erupting into arguments on social media. I have recently watched as one tweeter’s comment on the live export of sheep erupted in name calling and anger. Now for those of you with a strong view on live export, that isn’t actually the purpose of this article, so just cool your jets. The article is actually a reflection on the way we are influenced in our views on particular topics.

This tweeter’s view was that nationally live export is not a major contributor to total agricultural output. And based on the data, he is absolutely correct. It is a tiny percentage of total Australian agriculture production at just 0.37%. Admittedly his message was pointed and dismissive. The eruption that followed was two groups yelling at each other, and him. Those against live export flew into vehement agreement, slagging off at farmers as having subjected sheep to the hell of live export. On the other side are the farmers who will be directly affected by any bans, who are yelling at both the tweeter, and those with a contrary view. The tweeter was accused of ignorance and to some degree he was being seen as a traitor, for not sticking up for other farmers. Having an opinion, formed based on stats does not make him a traitor, it just makes him someone who doesn’t agree with you. There will be plenty of other topics that you won't agree on as well. It is diversity of thinking that drives innovation, and healthy debate. If we just all agree, then society and industry will be entirely stagnant.

Now those farmers have every right to be upset, frustrated, and angry, because their farm businesses as they know them, will change with a partial, or perhaps eventually a full ban put in place. Their livelihoods will be dependent upon adaptation within the industry to absorb the changes, and or support from the government in managing the transition. It would require good leadership to see the industry through with the least possible disruption to the individuals concerned.

Perhaps people see the best way to either hold onto the industry, or at least ensure a strong political response to aid in the transition, is to make as much noise as possible. That may well be true. There must however be some awareness of the positioning of any argument.

The most common response to anyone tweeting, commenting, or even possessing an opinion on the need for live export to cease (in the short, medium, or long term), is that “you wouldn’t know because you don’t have skin in the game”. And that is entirely correct. For those of us that don’t draw a direct income from live export, we can’t possibly know the emotional and financial impacts that you could or will experience. Similarly, because you do have “skin in the game” your view of the role of live export both now and in the future cannot possibly be formed without bias. It is the simple nature of a conflict of interest.

It doesn’t matter what the topic is (live export just happens to be the hot one at the moment) but every human being suffers from conflict of interest, and a natural bias based on our own upbringing, experiences, financial situation, and so on.

And so, when you say “you wouldn’t understand, because you aren’t a farmer”, or “you wouldn’t understand because you don’t have skin in the game”, be aware that you are perfectly presenting your bias to the argument. You are demonstrating your inability to separate your own personal circumstances from the discussion. That isn’t a criticism, but simply the way we work as humans.

Now in some cases the “you wouldn’t understand” arguments are exactly right. They don’t understand and they need more well thought out explanations to help correct them. But at least as often, your use of, or even thought of “you wouldn’t understand” is driven by nothing more than your personal bias.

Leadership on tough issues rarely comes from those with skin in the game. Some great leaders make good tough decisions, even if it hurts themselves financially, but very few do. We just aren’t wired that way. Human nature generally dictates that someone else needs to make the tough decisions for us, and then we begrudgingly adapt and evolve around them.

We are all influenced by our own personal biases. That is simply the way humans work. Particularly if there is skin in the game, then there is clear a conflict of interest, and our opinions will always be skewed by that. It doesn’t mean that your opinion isn’t valid, it simply must be acknowledged on that basis.

Great leadership will always come from those with vision, and rarely from those with a conflict of interest. It is just the way we are.

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