Freedom, Purpose, and the Opportunity to Achieve Success
In discussing freedom and opportunity within an organization, Nilofer Merchant wrote, in the forward of Dan Pontefract’s 2016 book ‘The Purpose Effect’,
“When people know the purpose of an organization, they don’t need to check in or get permission to take the next step; they can just do it. When the organization is demonstrating purpose, the likelihood of employees going above and beyond the call of duty greatly increases. When organizations stand for something, it brings coherence to everything and a real advantage to what they offer.”
The Purpose of Good Business
If a good business has purpose, what is the purpose of a good business? It’s not to make money. There has been enough work done on the poverty of the shareholder approach to management that we can accept that path as a dead end. Even the general idea of making money or generating wealth is insufficient to understanding purpose in general and the purpose of business in particular. We’ve had a clear view of this since Aristotle wrote the Nichomachean Ethics in the 4th Century BC,
“Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.”
If wealth is not the good that the good business seeks, why does the ‘bottom line’ remain the preeminent goal of business? People have advanced many explanations, but the simplest may be that the bottom line can be counted. What can be counted is easier to understand and, therefore, to manage.
Profit and Purpose
It would be going too far to claim we can live on purpose alone. Money doesn’t serve as a proxy for purpose. Whenever we survey the wreckage of the business world, financial mismanagement is a common factor. This tells us that money is important… just not all important. Peter Drucker touched on this in his 1973 book ‘Management: Tasks, Responsibilities and Practices’,
“To attain any of the [business] objectives entails high risks. It requires effort, and that means cost. Profit is, therefore, needed to pay for attainment of the objectives of the business. Profit is a condition of survival. It is the cost of the future, the cost of staying in business”
So profit is a condition of staying in business, which means staying in pursuit of business’s purpose. What helps us make sense of the purpose of a good business? The people who take part in the organization’s activities and the society that provides a place for the business. In other words, a business doesn’t exist in isolation from society. The purpose of good business can only be found by trying to understand the role of people within a society.
I wrote a manifesto of six articles to help me understand the purpose of business or, ‘responsible enterprise’ as I called it. Article V:
“Responsible enterprise brings together people’s need for aspirational achievement and society’s need for productive contribution. Responsible business takes people’s and society’s needs and transforms them into opportunities”
Our need for aspirational achievement is the thread that links our various experiences in life. Business management is no different. And we encounter this aspirational need the most when it comes to hiring. How we hire determines how well we are able to take society’s needs and transform them into individual opportunity. Which raises the question, how effective is our track record in hiring?
Hiring and Opportunity
That’s an interesting question. Robert D. Hare wrote in his 2006 book ‘Snakes in Suits’ how contemporary management culture provides the opportunity for psychopaths to find a niche. He noted that, because the hiring process is subjective, psychopaths are able to bring their primary tools of lies and charm to good effect. And we shouldn’t for a minute think that defective hiring mechanisms will only be found in the likes of disgraced firms like Goldman Sachs. The Silicon Valley hero entrepreneur culture is equally open to abuse.
Both environments have in common our broader tendency to elevate the social status of certain roles, professions, or industries. We form an idea in our mind that these positions are of great value and, in an effort to be the best we can be, create competition for them. For some of us, competition provides an opportunity to show the best of who we can be. But for others, the race to the professional top becomes a race to the moral bottom. The way we view people, their places in organizations and the place of organizations in society contributes to many of the troubling outcomes we can observe.
But this article isn’t about the obvious challenges we create for ourselves in our hiring practices. If we should hire with aspiration and opportunity in mind, we should hire with the opportunities people have to bring their aspirations to bear in pursuit of purposeful business. This becomes an issue of deprivation. There is no more deprived group of people in the world than those with disabilities, mental, physical, and social.
I used the word ‘psychopath’ earlier to make a point about culture, but ‘psychopathy’ is not a psychiatric diagnosis. There is a ‘burn the witch’ association to the word. Mental disability in general is widespread, nuanced, and easily stigmatized. We do ourselves a great disservice in our search for purposeful business to think only in terms of people with education, experience, and perfect teeth. If the task of purposeful business is to link the aspirations of people together, then we must also pay attention to relative deprivation of opportunity and its corollary, neglect. As Amartya Sen wrote in his 2009 book ‘The Idea of Justice’,
“People with physical or mental disability are not only among the most deprived human beings in the world, they are also, frequently enough, the most neglected… The magnitude of the global problem of disability in the world is truly gigantic. More than 600 million people – about one in ten human beings – live with some form of significant disability… The impairment of income-earning ability, which can be called the ‘earning handicap’, tends to be reinforced and much magnified in its effect by ‘the conversion handicap’; the difficulty in converting incomes and resources into good living, precisely because of disability”
The purpose of good business is to harness people’s aspirations and direct those aspirations toward meaningful opportunity. To those ends we owe it to ourselves to take a closer look at how we include or exclude people from our ranks. Not everyone can be made in image of the hero leader.
We can’t all tick the boxes that indicate good ‘fit’. We can’t all grow a good hipster beard, write witty Twitterisms or make sagacious points in front of a giant screen. But we do all have aspirations and we do all have something to contribute. We deserve the opportunity to do so. Some of us, by a twist of fate, have had less opportunity to contribute and have come further in our quest to do so.