Tom Tropp, Vice-president for Ethics and Culture at the Arthur J. Gallagher Corporation was a guest speaker in Stephen Hicks’s business ethics class on April 24. Gallagher is a $5 billion insurance brokerage company with almost 25,000 employees worldwide.
Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship Interview with Professor Al Gini on Leadership
Hicks: I’m Stephen Hicks of CEE. Today we have with us Professor Al Gini from Loyola University Chicago, where he is chair of the management department and where he teaches business ethics. He is also associate editor and founding editor of Business Ethics Quarterly. He was here today at Rockford to speak on leadership.
Professor Gini, your theme was organized around ten topics in leadership—ten critical tasks of leadership. I wanted to ask you to speak to three of them that I thought were particularly important. The first one, the number one, top on your list, was leadership and character.
What do you take the character of leaders to be?
Gini: Well, I think that, point of fact, it´s just at the top of the list, it´s that without the list doesn´t go forward, as far as I am concerned. For me, a leader, as every individual, is known by what they value and what they believe in. And so I think that what´s critical in a leader is that we want a person whose character has been attuned to other issues besides self. And when we talk about leaders of character, I think what we are talking about is: what do they value? What do they hold dear? What is important to them? Why do they want the job and what are they willing to do and not willing to do for a job, which is also an important consideration. So, for me, character is about the virtues that an individual possesses and how he or she applies those virtues in the task of leadership.
Hicks: If you were to identify three or four of the top virtues, what would you say those are?
Gini: Well, I think the first one would be to be ‘more selfless than selfish’. The recognition that this job is not about me, recognition that this job is about stewardship. Now, I am very uncomfortable about the word steward, stewardship or servant leadership, because it merely triggers of kind of theological base—shepherd, guardian—that kind of thing, and I don´t mean that. I think steward in the Greek means to be in charge of a household. To be an important agent who is in charge of a household. And so, when I say stewardship, I mean, you´ve been hired to manage this household. And so to me that leader has been hired. This is a job, as Harry Truman said, this is the best job I´ve ever had. But this is job, and my job is to be for others, not simply for myself.
Hicks: So a proper attitude toward self in relation to others, recognizing that there is more to that job, than just focusing. What else, what there will be key character traits of it?
Gini: Well, I think we are talking about certain essences of truth, commitment, work ethic, and how one sees the democratic process. And by democratic process I don´t mean just the American democratic processes. How one deals with followers, how one deals with collaborators, fellow stakeholders. I think that it´s critical.
In that list that I put up, I also talk about knowing oneself. I take that to be part of character. That one of the factors of a good character is they examine oneself. They know what is important to them. They are not easily blindsided by Oh, a new temptation, or a new issue they haven’t thought their way through.
You know, Hemingway once said, defining courage, that courage is a good men in a tough situation, a good person in a tough situation. And he meant by that, that person has already thought through Should I run into that building and save that child or, I guess, I should have a fireperson, but they have already thought that through, and then when the situation comes up, they do it.
So, I think that part of the requirement for leadership is to live the examined life, to be philosophical. Now, one no longer quote Socrates from The Republic, when he says in Book V that no state will be just until all philosophers are kings and all kings are philosophers. I am not sure I want to buy totally into that, but I do like that avenue of approach.
Hicks: So, actually at least to be philosophical, if not philosophers.
Gini: That´s okay, good.
Hicks: A second one that jumped out at me in your list was the importance of vision. That´s a big concept and we hear a lot about it. What is vision and what does it matter ?
Gini: You know, in the 1980s, in George Bush I, how I refer to it, it was the V-word , and he popped it off and became kind of this joke, all the vision of this, the vision of that, it was like the buzzword of the month. What I really think vision is strategic planning goal, and a guide to a company. What do we want to do here? How do we do it? What is our quality control factor? Why do we do it and why do we want to continue doing it, etc., etc.? So I think a vision to me includes strategic plans and tactical plans of getting something done. And I think an effective leader at the political level has to offer a strategic plan and a tactical plan that entices people to vote for them. And I think successful leaders in business need to also implement strategic and tactical plans that make that company successful and make them into successful leaders.
Hicks: What goes into making people able to do that? We talk about intelligence, abstract ability, knowledge?
Gini: Although this isn´t a popular thought, to me a leader has a certain skillset—like an athlete—that simply isn´t given to everyone and can´t totally be trained. You can be exposed to training, but you won´t necessarily get better. Michael Jordan had athletic skill, and then he added to that practice, development, and stretching himself to improve. I don´t have enough athletic skill. If I took the same kinds of lessons and coaching he did, I wouldn´t achieve that. It would be impossible for me to do so. But I´ve taken enough math courses to be acceptable in math, even though I don´t understand numbers as clearly as people who gravitate toward mathematics. So, I think that what we are talking about here is this inner talent that is also being trained.
Now, the whispered question is: are leaders born or made? I think there is a certain talent then is then developed and made better. Clearly, a Nelson Mandela is a perfect example of somebody that was well-trained, he was a lawyer after all, with great experience, and then time to reflect, time to develop, even in prison, it´s a strange thing to say, but really true. He tells us in his writings that it was in prison that I really went to the university of life, that I was able to reflect and talk about these things. So, I think no one is just born a great athlete. You have the skillset, but then has to be directed properly. But I do think there are people who are not leaders, and we´ve met them. That you wouldn´t them to take a group of seven-year olds to the ice-cream store.
Hicks: As you say, you´d never seen them again.
The third one on your list that jumped out at me was teaching. And, in many cases, we think of leaders as just telling people what to do and then they are hands-off. But your account was much more hands-on. So, say a little bit more if you can about the teaching role you think great leaders play.
Gini: Well, you are going to find the draconian leader, you know, you must do this and my will be done or it´s my way or the highway.
But I think the reality is: successful leaders empower their followers. And that word is more used than vision. To empower—that is, convince them that this is worth doing. Convince them that this is important. If you´ve never thought of this idea, let me bring it to your attention, and let me explain why this is important. I want to convert you.
So, I think teaching is a really important skill. To simply give orders, and even if you have an effective staff who obeys orders, is not really getting into the heart of the matter. Again, if leadership is about empowering people to be leaders of their own job, they´ve got to know why they are doing it. They can´t just know these are the four things that I have to do every day and repeat them again, again and again. So, I think they have to see that connection. So, I think good leaders have an obligation to teach people what to do.
When, as parents, when our 5-year olds wouldn´t put under galoshes and raincoats and go off to school, or when they were in the first or second grade, we force them to do it and made them walk out the door. And I am hoping that they recognize it that you can´t afford to get sick, you can´t miss school, you can´t miss a day´s work. But they´ve got make it at their own somewhere down the line, and so when it comes to their own, that is really lived out. And I think it´s the same thing at the workplace. You can only give orders so long. You can´t supervise everybody all the time. They either have to know what they are doing and why they are doing it, or it doesn´t get done.
Hicks: In closing, I want to ask you a historical question. You can do this is as a philosopher, someone who well-versed in literature. In your talk you mentioned this last generation there have been a number of failures of leadership, and then you mentioned a number of individuals in business who were in positions of leadership, people in politics in positions of leadership. And for good reasons, there are lots of widely discussed failures of leadership from both areas. So there is a temptation—it might be a real temptation for us to say—Well, we live in a particularly corrupt, or leadership vacuum, cultural time. But you also quoted Cicero, going back 2,000 years now, reflecting on his age and making the same criticisms about the failures of leadership in his time. Is our age particularly bad? Do you think we´ve made progress? Can we learn from history?
Gini: Well, I think our age is no different than any other age. I mean, the notion that everything happens comes around again. I think that Teapot Dome scandals of the 1920s were recapitulations of Grant’s whiskey scandals and a recapitulation of certain things that happened under Washington, just to use the American experience.
I think scandals come back again and again. We teach Socrates because every generation has to be tooled in literacy and ethics; it´s not inborn. But I don´t think it is any worse. And, in fact, I think the actions of the last number of years—that we got to this new electronic revolution, for all its downside, that we are tethered to our talking machines and our computers, and that we are changing the face of the universe.
What is happening in Egypt right now and in Northern Africa right now, is a demonstration that people want effective, democratic, transparent leadership. Leaders who are committed to the people that are in charge of and lead, and that just seem that they are there by virtue of office and by virtue of custom tradition.
And so, in a very real sense, I think we are moving into a much more democratic, critical awareness of leadership and that leaders will be held to a much higher account.
Hicks: My guest today is Dr. Alexei Marcoux, who spoke at Rockford University on moral partiality in business practice. Dr. Marcoux is a philosopher by training. He teaches in the business administration program at Loyola University in Chicago.
Alexei, in your talk today you were defending moral partiality in business practice, but, as you started you pointed out that most or at least a majority of business ethicists take business ethics to be about impartiality in ethics, and you took Norman Bowie to be your primary foil in the argument today. So, what is impartiality in ethics and why does Bowie think it’s a good idea?
Marcoux: Well, Bowie is just following the general trend in moral philosophy, which is to view ethics as being fundamentally concerned with impartiality. And for many ethicists, they view ethics just as teasing out the implications of impartiality for our actions. What Bowie is arguing — and what I am arguing is actually mistaken — is that impartiality lies at the very core of ethical business practice. And, I think if you actually look at business practice, and if you actually look at the considerations that he offers for why that is so, it actually shows that partiality, loyal service to another, is what is actually at the root of ethical business practice.
Hicks: You also walked through the arguments you constructed from Bowie, and you said he gave three considerations or three arguments on behalf of the impartiality. The first was that business is or should be characterized by arm’s-length transactions. How does that argument work?
Marcoux: What Bowie says is “Look, business should be conducted at arm’s length, and to let personal, that is, the interest of friends or family intrude, is often wrongful in a business environment.” And I am saying that that is true, that is true, but it doesn’t show that impartiality is at the core of ethical business practice. That is, we aren’t under a general duty to bargain at arm’s length. I can go through my whole life giving sweetheart deals to others, buying only from my friends, selling only to my family and so on, and it would be very strange to say that I am acting wrongfully. There is no general duty to engage in arm’s-length transactions, nonetheless, there is a special duty that occurs frequently in business for us to engage in arm’s length transactions. So, the question or the conundrum that needs to be answered is: how can we simultaneously be under no general duty to engage in arm’s-length transactions, but frequently under the special duty to engage in arm’s-length transactions. And the answer is found in agency relations, that is, we are duty-bound to bargain at arm’s length, when we are bargaining not on our account, but on account of others. And in that situation, we bargain at arm’s length as the best way to serve the interests of those others. But what that just shows is that when we are duty-bound to bargain at arm’s length, we are duty-bound to do so as a way of acting loyally, that is to say, partially to our principal. So, the arm’s-length transaction consideration doesn’t show that impartiality is central to business practice. If anything, it shows that partiality is.
Hicks: Right, so we can look at lots of business practice, there are people who go into business with their families, so they hire family members, they might do significant deals with family members or extended family members, friends, suppliers and customers and so forth, so, none of those are arm’s-length transactions that require impartiality. Those are all partiality relationships and so Bowie is insisting that all business transactions not fall into that category is just missing the business facts on the ground.
Marcoux: Well, that’s what he seems to be saying, and I think I said in the talk, if you take what he is saying, you know, as given, you’d have to conclude that all family business is morally suspect, because, a family business is a business in which you hire labor through other than arm’s-length transactions.
Hicks: Another argument that Bowie makes is the idea there are conflicts of interest in business, and the way we solve conflicts of interest is by making oneself impartial — not allowing one’s interests to dictate inappropriately how one should be behaving. So, why don’t conflicts of interests as a phenomenon show that impartiality is important?
Marcoux: Undoubtedly, in the world, there are conflicts of interest that are cases of being, or having an interest in being, partial to some, when we are actually duty-bound to be impartial. Think, for example, of a judge in a competition. If a judge in a competition favors one of the competitors over the others, that judge is acting wrongfully and the wrong is being partial when you are duty-bound to be impartial. But, of course, judging a competition isn’t doing business. Now, in business, there are examples of that too. Government contracting is an example. Government purchasing agent is duty-bound to all who will do business with the government to bargain at arm’s length. The problem is that this is very much the lesser part of business. In any basically capitalist economy the great bulk of transactions are not between the government and private business, or the government and private individuals, but transactions among and between private people. So, conflicts of interest in those cases tend to be cases of agents not faithfully acting loyally towards their principals. In other words, favoring the interests of some when they are duty-bound to favor the interest of others. So, what I am saying is, in the middle 80 percent of cases of conflicts of interest in business, the wrong of a conflict of interest is acting, or having an interest in acting, partially to some, when you are duty-bound to act partially toward others.
Hicks: Because of your agency relationships.
Marcoux: Because of your agency relationship. And so that doesn’t show that impartiality is at the center of ethical business practice.
Hicks: You also mentioned Bowie’s arguments about fiduciary duties and fiduciary obligations. How is that to, on Bowie’s view, provide support for the impartiality view?
Marcoux: Well, that’s what is actually hard to discern. In his book Business Ethics: A Kantian perspective, he treats this all very quickly en route to getting what he wants to say his Kantian business ethics consists of. So, when he observes that to favor family or friends may put a manager in violation of a fiduciary duty, again, that’s true, but how that shows that impartiality is central to business ethics is mysterious, because a fiduciary duty just is a duty of partiality, like the duty of an agent to a principal. So, a fiduciary duty is a duty of partiality and so, if you violated that duty by favoring family or friends, that’s another case of being partial to the interests of some when you are duty-bound to be partial to others. So, Bowie does a great job of identifying the considerations that bear on ethical business practice. I could hardly do better than to say that arm’s-length transactions, conflicts of interest and fiduciary duties reveal the character of ethical business practice. What is not at all clear is why he thinks that those show that at its core ethical business practice is impartial when all of those — when we have duties to avoid violating fiduciary duties, to avoid conflicts of interest and to engage in arm’s-length transactions — we have those as a result of duties of partiality to the others we serve.
Hicks: The subtitle of Bowie’s book is ‘a Kantian Perspective’, and that indicates there are some heavy-duty ethics, theoretical issues at stake here. And the usual foil to Kant in contemporary literature is John Stuart Mill and you do appeal to John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism as guidance for how to think about these issues of partiality and impartiality. How does Mill come to rescue, so to speak, or at least how does Mill provide guidance on these thorny issues?
Marcoux: Well, the way Mill provides guidance here is through his distinction between fundamental and secondary moral principles. This isn’t really so much a utilitarian versus Kantian distinction. In fact, you can see the two-level structure of morality that Mill talks about in Kantian deontology itself. What I am saying is that the way out of the confusion is to recognize the distinction between fundamental moral principles, which are principles of justification versus secondary moral principles, which are action-guiding principles. I am saying, fundamental moral principles, that is what moral theory is, but applied ethics, of which business ethics is a part, is mostly about identifying action-guiding principles that we can follow. And so, I think the mistake that lies at the root of Bowie’s argument is that — when he says that if the impartiality requirement applies anywhere, it applies in the ethics of business practice — he is taking a fundamental moral principle, a principle of justification, and treating it as if it’s a secondary moral principle, a principle of action guidance.
Hicks: So that is different from saying that the requirements or duties of impartiality are a small subset of normal business practice whereas rules of thumb of partiality are the majority?
Marcoux: Well, I think that the best way to say it is this: the impartiality requirement in ethics is a requirement to reason from an impartial perspective. It’s not a requirement to act impartially. In other words, we can have impartially-derived reasons to act partially. And we do so very often in business, as well as in other walks of life.
Hicks: So the other part of the argument then is a secondary, like that, if you look in the business facts on the ground, partiality is the dominant mode of business practice, the impartiality cases are a subset, secondary case, and that’s a supporting argument.
Marcoux: That’s it, okay, because business is a web of agency relations.
Hicks: I want to make a connection to one of the major debates as characterized in business ethics literature for the last generation or so, and that’s the stockholder-versus-stakeholder debate. I want to ask whether your distinction between the partiality positions on the impartiality tracks onto to that in the following sense: that stakeholder theorists will often say that the way business managers should think about proper action in a business context is to identify all of the stakeholders in the business — there are employees, there are customers, there are investors, there is society at large, and so forth — and that to be moral one should be impartial with respect to the interests of all of the different stakeholders. And the stockholder position, by contrast, says: there are a lot of stakeholders, but nonetheless is morally fine for business managers to be partial primarily to the stockholders’ interests, the others are derivative, secondary interests. So, is the debate between you and Bowie — say, in this case here — also the stockholder-or-stakeholder debate in another form?
Marcoux: Well, the way I would put it is that the stockholder/stakeholder debate is a particular instantiation of the general thing that I am talking about in paper, which is that the stakeholder theory basically is an attempt to take practice, in this case, the management of enterprises, which is governed at law and by custom in partialist terms — that is, managers or firms are to act as fiduciaries for the stockholders — and turn it into an impartialist one. You know, one of the ways I put in the paper is that ethical business practice is less like judging, and more like lawyering. The judge is supposed to be impartial, a lawyer is supposed to zealously represent the interests of his client. So, really, the stakeholder argument is an attempt to fundamentally change business practice. It doesn’t give an ethics of business, it is a new ethics for business. In other words, we want business people to do something else. That’s what the stakeholder theorists are saying.
Hicks: So they, in your judgment, have an idealized conception of what business practice should be.
Hicks: Your argument is that methodologically we should be starting empirically and realistically about how business does operate and work within that framework to figure the moral principles.
Marcoux: Yes, I think only that is applied ethics. What is being done under the guise of stakeholder theory is moral philosophy, under — excuse me, I would say normative political philosophy, under a different name. These people want to design new economic institutions, and that’s fine as normative political philosophy. But, as an attempt to tell business people who work within a given set of institutions, what it is to act ethically within those institutions, I think it’s a failure.
Hicks: If we kick things upstairs to normative ethical theory or normative political philosophy, another debate between egoist and altruist on ethical principles. And one form of altruism, if we take it very strongly, says that one should be selfless in moral considerations. And that means not allowing one’s own personal interest to guide anything that one does. Instead, one should selflessly see oneself as a servant or the needs of other people, the needs of society at large. And that strikes me as pushing in the direction of a strong impartiality, and the egoist position by contrast, says it’s fine to be partial to one’s own interests and that we are all mutually seeking our own self-interests in a market economy. So, is there, then, a tracking between this impartiality/partiality debate as you see in the business ethics literature to the longstanding debate over egoism versus altruism? I do note that, ’just in passing, that Norman Bowie also wrote a strongly critical argument attacking ethical egoism, so I was just wondering if you see the connection there, as well.
Marcoux: I think there is clearly a connection. I mean, the particularly stringent form of altruism that you just laid out would preclude anyone appointing an agent to act on their behalf. Because, if you can’t act on your own behalf, how could you appoint an agent to act on your behalf? And similarly would be hard to be an agent in those circumstances, because, to be an agent would be to be partial to some as opposed to others, whereas the essence of altruism is to serve all. So, an altruistic ethic can’t underwrite things like agency relations or fiduciary duties.
Hicks: Alright, then, once again, if one is — prior to doing business ethics — committed to a strongly altruistic ethic, that would then mean your business ethics has to attempt to be transformative, and not take business practice as is, but rather try to change it into a radically different kind of moral practice.
Marcoux: I think it’s constrained to do that.
Hicks: Do you suspect that that is what Bowie is doing?
Marcoux: Well, I suspect that is what Bowie is doing, I suspect that that is what the mainstream of the field is doing and has been doing since its conception.
Hicks: All right, fair enough. Fascinating material. Thanks for being with us today.
Marcoux: Thank you for having me, Stephen.
[The video interview with Dr. Alexei Marcoux follows.]
Here’s a report (in Spanish) on Professor Hicks’s lecture at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Santiago, Chile, to a group of engineering students and faculty at the invitation of Professor Ruth Murrugarra.
He did a short follow-up interview (in English) with Andrea Millar Bruna, posted here:
AMB: Which are the essential skills for success nowadays?
SH: Most important is an entrepreneurial mindset — that is, being committed to actively seeking interesting challenges and working creatively to meet them. That mindset enables one both to enjoy one’s work and to become good at it.
AMB: What is your vision about Chile related to entrepreneur and ethics.
SH: Chile’s remoteness from major economic sectors and its sometimes dependence upon a few commodities — can be positives but also present challenges for integrating into the world economy. Entrepreneurship is all about meeting challenges. So Chile might think about adapting, say, the Finnish model of education investing in human capital and the high-tech sector, as both Chile and Finland are geographically distant countries with smallish populations and a narrower range of natural resources.
AMB: In your opinion, why are ethics and entrepreneurship so important?
SH: The only way to personal success in one’s business is by having integrity – being committed to doing quality work and following through. People who cheat or engage in hypocrisy may gain in the short-term but they rob themselves of the satisfaction of living with pride. Their “successes” are hollow. Ethics is also especially important for entrepreneurs, not only in their personal quests, but also since as founders they are most influential in establishing the culture of their firms.
Stephen Hicks’s article “What Entrepreneurship Can Teach Us About Life” was published in English by The Wall Street Journal. The article has since been translated into Portuguese and can be found at Libertarianismo.org.
Hicks: I am Stephen Hicks. Our guest today is Professor Terry Noel, who teaches Entrepreneurship and Management at Illinois State. Here today at Rockford College speaking on the theme of the virtuous entrepreneur. Interesting title, but your broader context is the newer entrepreneurial economy that we live in and that you think is accelerating, particularly for younger people. What do you mean by this, new and accelerating entrepreneurial economy?
Noel: Well, I think we’ve seen a change in the last 30 years certainly, in about 1980, we started to see a big shift in the economy from one which was driven largely by Fortune 500 companies. In 1980, we had about one in five people were employed by a Fortune 500 company. Now, a little less than 20 years later, in about 1998, that had dropped to one in fourteen.
Hicks: I have seen that number, yes.
Noel: And so we really became more of a small business and entrepreneurship economy than a large-company economy. Now, since 1998, we’ve had many more changes. The pace of change ha really accelerated, because, if you recall, the Internet was really established as a commercially viable entity only in 1994, in January. When we take that shift that was already happening and then add a radical transformation of how information is handled, and who has access to it, and we start to see a great deal of turmoil in the economy. So, in my view, I think that we will continue, in some cases, to see large companies, but by and large, I think we are going to see an economy where we have more startups dealing with new technological issues, and we are going to see such rapid change that the idea of a large organization staying in place for decades, I think, it’s going to become more rare.
Hicks: And this is going to impact younger people. Fewer of them will be working in organizations that are traditional large corporations. They will be working in smaller organizations, or more entrepreneurial organizations, and many more of them themselves will become entrepreneurs. And so that means a different kind of set of character traits are going to be more important, right, for younger people and this takes us to the virtue part of your talk. Now, before you plunge into entrepreneurial virtues per se, you made a distinction between positive ethics and negative ethics. Say something about that.
Noel: Well, usually when we talk about ethics in the context of business, we are largely talking about refraining from certain types of behaviors. Don’t cook the books, don’t misrepresent your product. Don’t sell things under false pretenses or things that are dangerous.
Hicks: OK, so they’re all don’ts.
And there is nothing wrong with that, it’s just that that’s really only one half of the view of business ethics. I think it’s important also to recognize that there are positive virtues. I would put on the list things like, say, courage, the ability to try something new. If we are going to live in an economy where new ideas and innovation are kind of the mainstay of growth, then it requires people who are willing to take a chance and to do something brave. Ethics is not simply about refraining from doing damage to other people or lying to them in various ways, but actually doing positive and creating value in the world. Then, we need to shift ethics away from simply not doing to a focus on the positive.
Noel: Oh, I think so, absolutely.
Hicks: Right, and then you connected that to the entrepreneurship discussion, because, if we are to be more entrepreneurial, or outright entrepreneurs, then what are the character traits that go into being an entrepreneur or being entrepreneurial? Now, you have mentioned being courageous, being creative, right, and so forth. What other key virtues do you think are critical to success?
Noel: I think the top one I would put at the very top of the list, independence of mind. I think that, in order for someone to succeed as an entrepreneur, he or she has to be willing to trust that his or her convictions are sound. That doesn’t mean you get it right every time, and doesn’t mean being mule-headed about things. It just means having the confidence to think that I am in the minority on this idea, and I am OK with that. And I can survive in that kind of climate. And that is not a virtue that we talk about a lot. Much of virtue it seems to me is founded in a sense on conformity. So, I think independence of mind hits the top of the list.
Hicks: OK, closely related would creativity of mind be, you mentioned that a little earlier.
Noel: I think creativity is with some qualifications. I think creativity is often emphasized in entrepreneurial ventures, and that is good. And because almost, by definition, an entrepreneurial venture is creative in the sense that it kind of disrupts normal routines. But, creativity can be overrated. Very often, successful businesses we know are not those that are necessarily radically creative, but they often put an interesting tweak or twist on an existing idea. So, I think creativity makes a difference, but not for its own sake.
Hicks: This distinction between incremental innovation or incremental creation vs. disruptive innovation and so on.
Noel: And both can be valuable.
Hicks: Fair enough. And then you mentioned courage. So, what else would be high in your list of traits?
Noel: I think resilience, absolutely, has to be near the top of the list. Because, the simple fact of the matter is most entrepreneurs fail, they just fail marvelously. Failure is a virtue, but not if we fail for reasons of being careless, or not doing our homework, not paying attention to reality. But, sometimes we can do our homework, do all the “quote” right things and still fail. I think probably the biggest factor that separates successful entrepreneurs from those that die on the vine is that they just decide they will do it, no matter what. Now, they may have to change their approach to an idea, but they have to be resilient enough to get up, dust themselves off and go at it again.
Hicks: All right, so that’s four so far. Five is a nice rounded number. So, one more.
Noel: You know, I am going to put on the list that I’ve just being thinking about recently. And so, I think compassion. One has to remember what the real root of entrepreneurial activity is. And that is, I want to achieve something for myself, and that is noble motive. It may be to satisfy a drive to create something beautiful or useful, and we can do that, say, as an artist or as a performer, and not really think in a business context. When we are entrepreneurs, though, we are creating a value that can be enjoyed by other people, for which we receive an honest trade in exchange. Value for value exchange. Without some type of compassion, that is, the sense of understanding what other people need and how to make their lives better, it’s very hard to be a successful entrepreneur. So, compassion not in the sense that we usually think of it in just charitable causes and things like that. But being able to understand and empathize with people and how to make their lives better.
Hicks: So, it’s not necessarily understanding what people themselves think they want, or being just doing your market research and being tuned, but being able to understand and feel for how people could live.
Noel: Yeah, I think Steve Jobs is a great example. Because, at the time, if you had asked, me and most other people, do you need a computer in your home?
Hicks: This being in the 70s or earlier, actually?
Noel: We’d have looked at you, like what? But Steve Jobs recognized what we needed and what the world needed before any of us did. Now, interestingly, and this is why I think there is no contradiction between self-interest and the service of others entrepreneurially, Steve Jobs says a marvelous quote in which he says: “We didn’t create this to everybody else. We created this for us. We wanted to create the neatest computer that had ever been invented.” Now, you think about that. He is saying outright we didn’t do it for everybody else, yet millions benefited. So, I think sometimes we have a convoluted view of what is good for us and what is good for others.
Hicks: The win, win is natural and normal, if you are an entrepreneurial value creator.
Hicks: Not to put words in your mouth.
Noel: No, no. That’s a very good way of putting it, in fact.
Hicks: Now, this list of traits, this takes us to the issue of why some people, and it seems to be a minority, are successful as entrepreneurs, other people fail as entrepreneurs, but a lot of people also just aren’t interested in it or frightened by entrepreneurship. Are entrepreneurs made or are they born? From your talk, I got the impression that you think that they are made, or that at least we can train ourselves to become more entrepreneurial. So, how does one do that?
Noel: Well, I think the first thing we need to remember is we view holding a job for our adult working lives as the norm. When, in reality, that about 100 years ago and before, that was not the norm at all. More than half of people were employed in their own businesses. We had shopkeepers and artisans and so forth. And then, as we learned of the value of large organizations, efficiencies of scale and things like that, we came to have lots of people that found it a better life for themselves to have the predictability and security of a job. There is nothing wrong with that. I think we are probably seeing the end of that era for reasons we talked about a moment ago. And that means that, as we have less of our working lives dictated by an organization, and the goals of management and owners, we have to make up our own minds of what we want to do and the value that we want to create. And that’s a bit different. That’s not a set of virtues about fitting in to the corporate climate, but it’s developing virtues like independence of thought and courage.
Hicks: Does it mean a shift in parenting styles, a shift in education, lower education, higher education?
Noel: Heaven love them, our parents, what do our parents want for us? So we have kids, right, and what we want? We don’t want them to experience all the pain that we experienced. Now, we may say we want you to go out, be adventurous and do these things and be true to yourself. But, in reality, we remember all the lumps and bruises we took, and we think for heaven’s sake, I hope they don’t have to go through that. And I think sometimes, unconsciously, we encourage our kids to be too safe. We encourage them to get a good job with benefits, and then we don’t have to worry that they won’t be able to pay the bills. Instead of teaching them to go out and try micro-businesses, to encourage them to go out and take fifty dollars, invest in something, go resell something, see if you can make some money. Or instead of getting that part-time job while you are going to school and getting paid minimum wage, why don’t you start a micro-business that will support you through college? I think we don’t tend to do that quite enough. So I think parenting does have a lot to do with it.
Hicks: For people who are older adults, and who want to cultivate entrepreneurism in themselves, what kind of advice do you have for them?
Noel: Well, a couple of things. One, as you’ve probably already without realizing it, developed a lot of the virtues that are necessary for being an entrepreneur. Because most people, in their adult working lives, have faced situations where they’ve had to be courageous and maybe even to a certain extent in certain companies innovative. I think the biggest thing, if I were to encourage adult entrepreneurs, say, people that are near retirement age, but they are worried they won’t be able to live well through retirement, is to develop just some fundamental business skills, things that, you know, basic accounting skills, basic marketing skills. I am not talking about going back and getting a college business degree, but just developing those skills. As far as the virtues, I think you just have to take assessment of what your experiences have been like. If you have been in a company that encouraged innovation and risk-taking, it’s probably pretty natural.
Hicks: So, just build on those consciously.
Noel: Build on those. If you’ve been in an environment that has been very staid and very predictable, you set to be honest about that and ask yourself. Are there areas in my life where I have been innovative and being a risk-taker and how can I parlay that into an entrepreneurial venture.
Hicks: All right, so ongoing character training for oneself.
Noel: Exactly, a little step at a time.
Hicks: Whatever age level.
Hicks: Thanks for being with us today.
Noel: Thank you for having me.
[The original interview with Professor Noel follows.]
Hicks: I am Stephen Hicks, executive director of CEE, and with us today is Dr. William Kline, who is Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies at the University of Illinois in Springfield. Professor Kline is a Philosophy professor, primarily specializing in business ethics, which is why we invited him here to Rockford College to speak to our Business Ethics class earlier this evening.
Now, Professor Kline, in your approach to business ethics you take issue with the usual statement that business ethics is a contradiction in terms or that it’s an oxymoron. Or what we might refer to as the negative approach to business ethics — which is primarily about focusing the Enron and the Bernie Madoff cases — all of the scandal cases, and presenting an unrelenting litany of problems as representative of what business is all about. What is wrong with that approach to business ethics?
Kline: One of the things that struck me is — I was teaching business ethics at the time that Enron happened in Tyco — and everybody wanted to talk about that, everybody asked, “Wow, what about WorldCom?” And you had, just in terms of corporations and not in terms of business overall, on the New York Stock Exchange something like 3,000 enlisted companies and, on the NASDAQ, I believe something on the order of 5,000. And I might be short on that. It might be easily be higher than that. So we are talking about 8,000 business and five did bad things. That’s actually a pretty good record.
So why not talk about the 7,995 good cases that have gone right and what we can learn from that? Rather than, you know, the same old boring story that, well, somebody pilfered the company funds and ran off to some exotic location, which we all know is wrong. I don’t need business ethics to tell me that’s wrong.
Hicks: Is it your point, though, not that we can’t learn from the negative cases just as a doctor can learn from disease cases, but that we have more to learn from the good cases or successful cases?
Kline: I hear what you say, and it’s not that we can’t learn from the negative cases. Of course, you need rules to protect property and contracts. I think there are real issues with what stock ownership entitles you to, and those rules need to be worked out, but they just get overemphasized. Nobody is looking at all of the good that happens through business, and specifically, the individual good when you decide to enter into business or a business person decides to enter into business, how that might be conceived of as morally good.
Hicks: And here your major theme was putting your business life, including the choice to go into business, this approach to business, or choosing this particular business in the context of your life overall, putting an emphasis on the good life in a very Aristotelian sense? Can you say more about that?
Kline: I think, quite frankly, it’s tragic. I’ve had students graduate now. I’ve been teaching long enough. And I’ve had students that have gone into things that they loved and students that have gone into things that they’ve hated. And this notion that, well, here is my business and professional life, and that’s totally separate from my personal life, and totally separated from the good things I do in the world, and it’s its own entity, I don’t find that works that often. The happiest people I met are the people who have incorporated their business life into their broader goals, their broader aspirations, and see it serving a purpose within their lives. And so, yes, that’s how I want to talk about business ethics. And then in the Aristotelian version of it, what we want to talk about is a flourishing life, and that requires taking a holistic approach to one’s life, including business in that.
Hicks: Right, so if you then ask what are the constituent elements of a flourishing life, and then once we articulate what those are, we can then place one’s business activities in the context of that and many of the same things carry over to that. So, if we are then to ask in an Aristotelian sense, updating Aristotle, what is a flourishing life, or what are the major constituent elements here? You had a list of six features, I believe, no that we have time to talk about all of them, but what are we talking about here?
Kline: Yeah, let me just take a few. What we’re talking about is this: in order for us to flourish as beings, we have to recognize both constrains on what we are and what we can’t do but also certain abilities that we possess and that need exercising. As Mill said famously, to be Socrates dissatisfied is better than being a pig satisfied. And quite frankly, I think part of the reason for that is really to live a life of a pig is either exceedingly boring or, if you look at people who’ve lived purely hedonistic lives, is quite self-destructive. So, the question on the Aristotelian line is: given the kind of being I am, how can I do well in the world? Some of the characteristics of a flourishing life that we looked at today were that the flourishing might have to be some sort of standard for flourishing conducts, something that goes beyond my preferences, something that goes beyond my whim, or some sort of guide post to let me know when I am doing better or worse. And one of those objective elements that I pointed out today that we should consider is that there is something fundamental about us in trading. Aristotle said that we are social creatures; Adam Smith said we have a natural propensity to truck and barter. I don’t see why it’s something we should deny. It’s something we should embrace, and it’s a good thing. When we explorers go exploring and they want to make contact with new people, they take stuff to trade.
Kline: It’s far better than just annihilating who you meet. And trading is social. It’s not antisocial, not at all. Once again, Smith points out that economic transactions are a way of communicating, a way of persuading, which I find highly interesting. If one took a Hayekian model, one can say it’s a way to trade information. That’s exactly what I am doing when I am trading price information. I will take this for that much, and you’ll take that for that much. This is a fundamental type of communication.
Hicks: So, in a broader context, the constituent element of a human flourishing life is social?
Hicks: The rich values that we get as social beings interacting with each other, that then carries over to the business world, which is essentially social through trade. And we’re trading lots of things back and forth, and we’re productive individuals trading with each other to mutual benefit. The point that you are making, then, is that business is tapping something deeply social in us.
Kline: Well, absolutely.
Hicks: And, positively, the social is a constituent of a good life.
Kline: Yes, exactly. I mean, people recognize that when they meet at the local club, that they are being social. People will recognize when they meet on Facebook, they are being social. People aren’t as apt to recognize the fact that when you meet to trade, whether it’s in a bazaar or a Walmart, you actually are being social.
Hicks: However, you might not know much about particular people you’re trading with.
Kline: Right, but that’s a good thing too. I don’t need to know everything about somebody to trade. I can productively engage in a fun, social interaction that mutual benefits both of us and I need not worry about what religion you are or what political beliefs you had. How horrible that would be if I had to litmus test everybody on their political views or religious views before I interacted with them.
Hicks: And another element of the social boldness that you mentioned is that business, in its propensity to trade with each other, leads people then to be willing to overlook a lot of the things that they ordinarily wouldn’t overlook in history, like their ethnicity, their race, religion, or gender. So, people in business, to the extent that they engage in this propensity of truck and barter, are more likely to be tolerant and peaceful?
Kline: Tolerant, peaceful, and there are real incentives in the market and in business to not discriminate. There are real incentives to include anybody within your trading or productive enterprise as long as they can in turn trade or be productive with you. I am not saying that answers all questions or solves all problems in humanity, but there is a critique of market systems out there that they are inherently racist or inherently sexist, and that’s simply not true.
Hicks: All right, to go from flourishing in general, if we look at business in particular, in the former you mentioned Aristotle a lot, and now in your methodology in talking about the nature of business you rely on Hume a lot; you are very empirical. What is it that makes business business? It’s one thing to say here is the ethics that we should be applying here, but we also have to understand enterprise in its own place. So, what makes business a distinctive kind of human enterprise?
Kline: I think that the purpose of business is to produce a good or a service for trade. That that’s what makes distinctive. Someone would argue that perhaps the purpose of businesses is to serve a social good. For various reasons, I don’t think that that’s the purpose of a business. That’s the purpose of charities. That might be the purpose of certain political mechanisms. But if you look at what business is, it fundamentally involves trading. It involves using money as a method of calculation for making your decisions. To overlook that is to overlook the nature of business.
Hicks: If the purpose of business is not primarily to produce a social good, then what is the contrast purpose to that? Is business primarily individuals mutually satisfying their individual purposes?
Kline: Business allows you to do that, but I can solve my individual purpose. I can be an artist, I don’t have to trade. I can make my art works. I could be a philosopher. Socrates didn’t trade his thoughts and he had, you know, a life of his own that satisfied his preferences. I really think that saying that you are going into business means that you are accepting a body of rules and goals and obligations that center around this notion that I am going to productively engage with other people on the basis of trade. If I am not trading, if I am just giving you something as a gift, that’s not business. If I am just taking from somebody, that’s theft: that’s not business. Once we engage in this mutual give and take of what’s called trade with goods that we have produced without violating property rights or contract rights, then that’s business.
Hicks: You are also critical of two of the major models that are currently dominant in business ethics discussion: the stakeholder model and what’s sometimes called the stockholder model. And you use Milton Friedman as the major representative of the stockholder model. You’re critical of the idea that business should be defined in terms of a social responsibility to produce profit. What is wrong with that definition or account in your judgment?
Kline: The majority of my business colleagues know the purpose is to make a profit. Well, stop. If one is on the financial services industry where the good or service one provides is actually an optimization of money accounts, whether it through hedge funds, mutual funds, monetary instruments, or derivatives, then that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that it applies to everything. I mean, people get involved in family businesses because they like the business. People start second careers in different businesses just because they’ve always wanted to operate a tiny theater in a small town. I am thinking of Berkeley, West Virginia. There is a small theater that people opened up because they just always wanted to do that. Profit is important; without a profit you go out of business. As I said before, money is a method of making your decision procedures. And profit also allows you to get what you want out of life, so it’s very important. I am not saying it’s not, but I don’t think it’s the purpose of business to gauge how well you’re doing business.
Hicks: Would you put that in the context of a corporation, say, where there’s a division of labor between management and the stockholders? Is there any role for saying that the managers have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit for the stockholders? Or is that merely a limited case of business closer to the hedge fund people, for example, you mentioned earlier?
Kline: There is a tendency in business ethics to over corporatize everything so that if you want to talk business ethics we have to talk about either Enron or GM. And, if you look at the business sensitive data, at least half of all businesses are smaller than, I think, five-hundred people, with sizable chunks even in the lower registers. So, the reason I don’t like talking about, you know, fiduciary responsibilities of managers to stockholders isn’t because it isn’t important. It’s because everybody is talking about it, and what I want to talk about is this practice called business. And whether you’re a corporation, a privately-held company, a professional, or whether you’re operating out of your garage or some multi-billion-dollar complex, this is something that has importance to you.
Hicks: So, the profit as the primary purpose model which is sometimes called the stockholder model, you criticize that. But you also equally criticize the stakeholder model. And what was your criticism of the idea that the purpose of business is to satisfy the interest of all relevant stakeholders?
Kline: That is my objection. The purpose of business is to produce a good or service for trade. Once you figure the good or service you want to offer, that you want to be an accountant, that you want to make widgets, etc., and you’re now doing that and making trades, there are multiple decisions one has to make in the means of production, where one wants to locate, who one’s going to hire. And money is the method to make these decisions. What am I going to get if I invest in this? And it’s a multi-attribute decision problem made on the basis of money. That’s the key, as I said, methodology of business. Stockholder thesis says no, if that’s all you are taking into consideration, you actually being immoral. I have to equally consider the interest of all my stakeholders. So, if I make a decision, I have to consider the interests of the community, interests of the workers, the interest of consumers, interest of the suppliers, the interest of…I am probably missing one now. Stockholders, actually count as well. Or the interest of the owners, mighty nice that they count sometimes, huh? And so, I have to balance all their interests. Well, if it’s not going to be with money, then how do I balance it? And it turns out that it’s a political decision process to balance it. So, that notion of business ethics I actually think it’s antithetical to business. It’s political ethics.
Hicks: But rather relying on the narrow stockholder approach or the narrow stakeholder approach as you’re arguing here, we need to think more generically about the nature of business, which can come in many forms and serve many different purposes with different individuals. And so, your definition of business as purpose-driven production of goods and services for the purpose of trade, that’s where we should start. All right, so then, on the positive side of business ethics, you say that this then generates a kind of principled commitment that can come out in an ethos, right, that if you want to decide what it is to be a good business professional or what it is to commit to the best kind of business life, you think of what are the needs of the production part of the business and what are the needs of satisfying the trade, so being committed to productivity and being committed to trade. That’s how we should approach things. And then, equally, towards the end of the discussion you mentioned that this serves as a principle for deciding what is unethical in business. And even if we rule out the clear cases of crime and so on as not being part of business, how does your account of what business is help us deal with cases like discrimination, say, in the workforce or the owner who uses the business as his personal piggy-bank and so on? How does it provide us a guide in the negative cases?
Kline: Okay, let me go back to the positives briefly.
Hicks: Fair enough.
Kline: Well, remember we are looking at us as human beings, and the trading actually touches something within us, something that’s very peaceful, something that’s exciting, something that’s social. That’s important. Business can serve that because trading is a fundamental aspect of business. I’m producing goods and services for trade. So, in general, business is a good thing. Now, I have to decide specifically what I want to do within business. This is a good way to live, but I don’t live a way, there is something specific I have to do. I want to be an accountant or whatever. And so that funnels down. Now I’ve decided to be an accountant, or I’ve decided that I want to make hamburgers, or I have decided I want to sell whatever. Now, I have specific obligations that go along with each of those. If I am going to sell chicken, I have a specific obligation not to kill people with salmonella or kill people with E. coli. I have these specific obligations as I provide this on the market, certain things that I have to do. So it’s very action guiding in a good sense to tell me what ought I focus on that just making a profit doesn’t, right, as I am focusing on these productive activities. Now, to help me on the other side with when I’ve gone wrong, right, so what am I going to do right? Well, I want to focus on the productive side and the trading side, but when I’ve gone wrong I have stepped outside of this. And people will do self-justification all the time. It’s my business, so I can discriminate. Or, it’s my business, so I can hire the secretary to sleep with. Well, that’s precisely just self-justification. And why is it just self-justification? Because you’ve agreed and you’ve broadcast that you’re in business. We have said that this is what business is and now you’re doing entirely opposite. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. You are really doing business or you’re not. And if you are using it as your personal piggy-bank, if you are using it as your personal sex-playpen, or if you are using it just to lord it over other people, you are not engaging in business and I think you are violating the telos of it. I think you’re doing something fundamentally wrong. And, by the way, in the process of that, people say, well, you’re violating the goals. But remember what you’re violating. You’re violating this trading, right, so we’ve gone from a trading model to an authoritarian model which doesn’t serve flourishing the way the trading does. You’re not being productive in this sense. You’re actually probably being some sort of, wish I could find a better term, but some sort of leech. You are sucking the productive abilities out of people or the company. You are not engaging in this mutually productive trade anymore. So when I say you violate the goals or the ends of business, there are some very real effects, both on your individual flourishing and on the flourishing of those around you as well.
Hicks: All right, so think of business as a principled calling in the context of a flourishing life, given the kinds of beings that we are. When you then enter into business you’re committing to productivity and trade. Take those seriously, internalize them, and then also externalize them in business and remain true to that. That’s business as a noble cause?
Kline: Yes, and if you don’t want to do that then do something else.
CSR, Sustainability, Ethics & Governance: Building New Bridges between Business and Society
Editors: Hualiang Lu (Nanjing, China), René Schmidpeter (Cologne, Germany), Nicholas Capaldi (New Orleans, USA), Liangrong Zu, (Turin, Italy) Publisher: Springer Books Date: 2016
Entrepreneurship’s Relationship to CSR (Prof. Dr. Stephen R.C. Hicks)
This chapter rethinks the start of business ethics. The author agrees that the Corporate Social Responsibility model of business ethics has been a leading paradigm. But the author notices that practitioners usually take large firms as representative of business and address their ethical issues; this, he believes, leads to over-generalizing. But most people do not work in mid-to-large corporations; rather, they are sole proprietors, in a partnership, in a family firm, or in an entrepreneurial venture. Also, every large corporation began as an entrepreneurial venture. Therefore, the author argues that business ethics should begin where business begins. In other words, business ethics begins with entrepreneurship. The author first situates ethics in an entrepreneurial context to identify the core values, virtues, and vices of business. Then he addresses how those ethical issues scale as the business succeeds or fails at growing into large corporation.
Stephen Hicks has a chapter forthcoming in this new volume:
CSR, Sustainability, Ethics & Governance: Building New Bridges between Business and Society
Editors: Hualiang Lu (Nanjing, China), René Schmidpeter (Cologne, Germany), Nicholas Capaldi (New Orleans, USA), Liangrong Zu, (Turin, Italy) Publisher: Springer Books. Date: 2016
Entrepreneurship’s Relationship to CSR (Prof. Dr. Stephen R.C. Hicks)
This chapter rethinks the start of business ethics. The author agrees that the Corporate Social Responsibility model of business ethics has been a leading paradigm. But the author notices that CSR practitioners usually take large firms as representative of business and address their ethical issues; this, he believes, leads to over-generalizing. But most people do not work in mid-to-large corporations; rather, they are sole proprietors, in a partnership, in a family firm, or in an entrepreneurial venture. Also, every large corporation began as an entrepreneurial venture. Therefore, the author argues that business ethics should begin where business begins. In other words, business ethics begins with entrepreneurship. The author first situates ethics in an entrepreneurial context to identify the core values, virtues, and vices of business. Then he addresses how those ethical issues scale as the business succeeds or fails at growing into large corporation.