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The Moral Advantage

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Based on interviews with 48 executives in a variety of industries, The Moral Advantage describes the many distinct ways that morality contributes to business success. Some of these ways are familiar (following ethical codes, for example), whereas others, such as unleashing the powers of moral imagination, have received little or no attention.
Damon details precisely how these business leaders applied their moral sense to strengthen their businesses. For some, it was a matter of directly extrapolating a new business concept from a moral (and often spiritual) worldview. For others, it was a sensitivity to what consumers needed and a determination to respond effectively to that. For yet others, it was a commitment to a caring and ethical manner of doing business that required inventive approaches to organizing employees. But in every case, Damon shows that it was by adhering firmly to a personal moral code that these men and women ultimately triumphed.
All too many people view business as a ruthless, dog-eat-dog world where only the pitiless survive. Recent scandals in the corporate world have reinforced this cynical view. Men and women in business today need a roadmap showing them how to achieve success on the high road. The Moral Advantage provides that roadmap.

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1. Leading Lights

ePub

19

Lars Kolind, named Denmark’s Man of the Year in 1996, is one of the world’s most admired businessmen. When he was in charge of Oticon Corporation, a high-quality manufacturer of hearing aids and other technologies, he helped transform the company into a knowledge-based organization in which new ideas could be generated and tested without being blocked by the kind of bureaucratic hurdles that are common in large corporations. Within seven years after taking the company public, Kolind increased its market value by a factor of fifty. After leaving Oticon, he founded his own business discovery fund (PreVenture A/S), served on several boards of multinational corporations, and started The Copenhagen Centre, a government agency that fosters partnerships between the public and private sectors.

I reached Kolind by telephone in Copenhagen. Earlier that same week, I had noticed his picture on the cover of a prominent weekly Danish magazine. Kolind’s celebrity status in Denmark is a result of the “spaghetti organization” concept that he defined and promoted as Oticon CEO and board member. (During our interview, he half-complained to me about being known as “the spaghetti man” throughout Denmark.) The so-called spaghetti structure reduces hierarchy, opens up multiple channels of simultaneous communication among workers, and exposes employees to some of the responsibilities that other workers deal with.

 

2. The Moral Advantage

ePub

42

I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money, and every other good, public as well as private.

SOCRATES

When I titled this book The Moral Advantage, I was aware that the phrase could sound both naive and crass, not an appealing combination. On the naive-sounding side, am I really claiming that morality in business is a way of advancing one’s own interests, of actually creating an advantage for oneself? If I am making such a claim in earnest, this idea surely seems a bit clueless in a world where CEOs make off with vast fortunes by inflating their pay, hanging employees out to dry, and deceiving the public: clearly you don’t need to be moral to make a lot of money. On the crass-sounding side, am I promoting the idea that morality should be viewed merely as a means to advance our own interests?

My answer to the first question is yes, I am claiming that morality is the best pathway to business success, the surest means of promoting both one’s own career interests and the interests of those with whom one does business. But I am referring to a kind of success that is broader and more satisfying than monetary gain alone— although financial success is certainly included in the vision that I have in mind.

 

3. Generative Morality: Acts of Creation

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64

In business as in life, the moral imagination is a fertile source of creative ideas. Of course it is not our only source of creative ideas— almost any flight of fancy can lead somewhere if we are prepared to follow it up properly—but the moral imagination is a source that has exceptional staying power. Backed up by our deepest beliefs, an idea generated by moral imaginings cannot easily be beaten down. We go to the mat for it, amid doubts and criticism. We take risks that otherwise might seem unbearable, because we have faith in the fundamental worthiness of the idea. In the face of daunting skepticism, this kind of persistence is exactly what is needed to see a bold new concept to fruition.

Both entrepreneurs and managers draw creative new ideas from their moral imaginations, the generative dimension of business morality. As with all of the moral dimensions, the consistent use of generative morality can give companies unmatchable advantages in the marketplace. Entrepreneurs generate creative ideas that help develop better products and services; managers generate ideas that help them build stronger organizations. And many business leaders wear entrepreneurial and managerial hats, using their moral creativity both to generate new concepts for products and services and to invent new solutions to tough personnel problems. In this chapter, I discuss the uniquely valuable contributions of moral imagination for both these business uses.

 

4. Empathic Morality and the Golden Rule

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88

Try a fascinating experiment in moral development with any group of five-year-olds. First, tell them the Golden Rule. Say it in a couple of different ways, both in its traditional form (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and in a plainer English version, making sure that they understand all the words (for example, “Treat other people just the same as you’d like them to treat you”). Then ask the five-year-olds to repeat the Golden Rule and give some examples of the way it works. Unless they are prodigies, most of the children will repeat the Golden Rule as something like, “Do back to other people what they do to you,” or “Treat other people in the same way that they treat you.” Most five-year-olds will come up with the following kinds of examples: “I gave my Mom a nice birthday present because she’s always nice to me,” “Billy’s my best friend, and I share my bike with him so he’ll let me use his bike,” or “You can fight with someone who hits you first.”

Now as adults, we recognize that such sentiments are closer to the “eye for an eye” ethic of reciprocity and revenge than they are to the Golden Rule ethic of “love thy neighbor as thyself.” We recognize this because we are able to do an extra mental step that most five-year-olds cannot do: we consider what we would want if we were the other, instead of what we do want as ourselves. We are not bound by a limited, self-centered perspective that dictates how we feel when someone has done something to us (or for us), or that prescribes how we should act if we want to get someone to do something for us. We can take an extra mental step (a “what we would want if we were the other” step) by mentally placing ourselves in the shoes of another person. As this cognitive transaction is called in developmental psychology, adults can “role-take.”1 In this way, we can know the wishes and expectations of another person.

 

5. Business Ethics that Come Naturally

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107

Business ethics means a great deal more than obeying the civil law and not obeying the moral law. It means imagining and creating a new sort of world based on the principles of individual creativity, community, realism, and other virtues of enterprise.

Across the landscape of business education, from business schools to management training programs, essentially all moral concerns are handled under the rubric of “business ethics.” That phrase usually refers to the accepted codes and practices that we need to follow if we wish to stay out of trouble. I do not deny the importance of these codes and practices—they generally have a moral basis, they protect other people’s rights, and it behooves everyone to stay out of trouble—but I believe that the narrow and negative way that these “business ethics” are presented in the standard approach does a disservice to the real purposes of ethical commitments. What’s more, the way that ethics has been taught in many leading business education programs has done little to ensure actual moral conduct among the students who have taken the program. In fact, there is evidence that this standard approach may even decrease the chance that students will practice moral conduct in day-to-day business settings.2

 

6. Philanthropy in Business: Doing it Right

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126

The essence of philanthropy is compassion. The word itself, in its ancient Greek semantic roots, means “love of humanity.” For societies that are organized around private enterprise (and the United States is the most prominent example), philanthropy provides a bedrock of care for the needy as well as a pillar of support for such nonprofit organizations as educational and cultural institutions. People who dedicate their time and resources to philanthropy have good reason to believe that they are making crucial contributions to the well-being of their society.

The value of philanthropy is widely recognized throughout the business community. As I noted in Chapter 2, almost four-fifths (79 percent) of the men and women whom we interviewed reported engaging in philanthropic giving to a significant degree. Consistent with the theme of this book, they do not see their charitable activities as a sacrifice but rather as another way to achieve their highest career goals. These business leaders believe in compassion as a desirable end in itself; and they also see it as an effective and moral means toward their more worldly career aspirations. They see giving as beneficial for both the giver and the recipient.

 

7. Forging a Moral Identity in Business

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147

There are two hazards in writing about morality. The first is that readers will dismiss it as marginal to their real-world concerns, an idealistic luxury that has little to do with our daily struggles for survival or fights for fame and glory. This hazard arises from a misunderstanding about what morality is and how it works in the real world. The aim of this book is to clear up this misunderstanding with a detailed explanation of how morality creates a valuable business advantage for those who employ it consistently and imaginatively. But the second hazard is less direct and harder to combat. It is that people who speak or write about morality have a way of sounding moralistic, preachy, and, worst of all, holier-than-thou.

It is essential that I take this second hazard head on at the outset of this chapter, not only because I do not wish to sound like a preachy prig, but also because being moralistic (as opposed to being moral) is antithetical to the message that I wish to convey. Being consistently moral is a matter of virtue, and humility is one of the primary virtues, in business as well as in life in general. People who are moralistic tend to be arrogant rather than humble, and their sense of superiority can lead their judgments and their choices astray. It also prevents them from learning from their mistakes— and everyone makes mistakes.

 

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