This I Believe

Bill - Winchester, Virginia
Entered on September 1, 2008

Yes, Even in Business

I believe we can create institutions – yes, even in business — that not only achieve the self interests of members, but also serve a greater good and act according to society’s highest values.

Some years ago I attended a five-day workshop where I was the only business person among psychologists, counselors and teachers. After the third day one of the group came to me and said, somewhat sheepishly, “We didn’t know what to expect when we learned you were in business. You aren’t that bad after all.” I realized I had shaken one of their long-held beliefs about people in business. I did nothing, however, to challenge a second one; implied by the first, that because they thought their careers virtuous, so were they.

About this time I read Victor Frankl’s classic — Man’s Search for Meaning — where he shared his experience in Auchwitz. I was moved by his portrayal of a camp commander who used his own money to buy medicine for prisoners and of a guard who shared his bread rations with them. Frankl contrasted this behavior with the absolute brutality of some Capos, who were prisoners chosen by the camp authority to control fellow prisoners. Frankl concluded that people were decent or indecent regardless of where grouped in society.

Throughout my career I have been a student of organizations – large and small, simple and complex, for profit and not-for profit. I would categorize them more by the character of their leadership than by the nature of their structures. Any structure may be oriented toward self-interest alone or a balance between individual needs and service to others. It is the leader who determines whether we have one orientation or the other.

But who determines who leads? The traditional view is that “leaders lead” and “followers follow”, where who leads is based upon position or rank. If we define “leadership”, however, as “the act of influencing people to follow a particular direction,” then whenever we do so — regardless of our formal status — we become leaders. From this perspective, everyone is a leader, and everyone a follower.

In any situation where two or more people come together, we can become the creators of our own communities — whether we are CEO’s of corporations, leaders of not-for-profits, coaches of little league teams, teachers with rooms full of third-graders, co-workers on a shipping dock, or guards sharing bread with prisoners in a concentration camp.

Who determines whether we have an orientation toward self interest alone or one that also serves a greater good? We do.