Henry Mintzberg—McGill business professor, management thinking maverick, and author most recently of Why I Hate Flying (Texere, 2001)—and two collaborators, Robert Simons and Kunal Basu, recently published a Memo to CEOs detailing “Five half-truths of business”:
- We’re only in it for ourselves.
- Corporations exist to maximize shareholder value.
- Companies need CEOs who are heroic leaders.
- Companies need to be lean and mean.
- A rising tide lifts all boats.
At least three versions of the memo are out there:
- The easy-to-access version on the Fast Company website;
- The long version on Mintzberg’s own website, bearing the title “Beyond Selfishness”; and
- The pretty version with cute “hand-jotted” editorial marginalia, in the paper version of Fast Company (June 2002).
While the entire memo bears pondering and debate, I am particularly struck by a paragraph under the first half-truth (“We’re only in it for ourselves”):
Think of this as the first law of business: In our finance classes, we are teaching a view of the world that says that each of us is obsessively self-interested and intent on maximizing personal gain. Economic Man, we tell our students, has one goal: more. And to get more, each of us is willing to do anything.
As Mintzberg and company argue, this is at least a half-truth: all of us act to some extent out of self-interest. To deny this would be dishonest. Self-interest is a part of the world we live in and a reality we know in our own hearts.
But Mintzberg and company continue to argue that self-interest is disastrous as a basis for economic life:
The half-truth of Economic Man drives a wedge of distrust into society. If we truly believe that each of us is nothing more than a calculator, then we become a society of calculations. Business simply won’t work if each of us is only in it for ourselves. While we need to have individual initiative, we survive in a context of social engagement.
Since the world we live in, for all its brokenness, is suffused in grace, self-interest is in reality not the basis of economic life, and we do not live in a bare society of calculations:
There are still CEOs who won’t sacrifice long-term interests for short-term gains, financiers who walk away from unethical deals, consultants who level with their clients no matter what, athletes who won’t endorse useless products, and professors who refuse to bend the truth as expert witnesses. These are people for whom integrity and self-respect are basic values—absolute needs—that are not open to negotiation.
The human person is an alloy of misery and glory, and to deny one or the other is to slide into cynicism or naiveté. Cynicism chokes our spirit; naiveté fogs our mind. And while most of us occasionally find ourselves to have succumbed to naiveté, and at least as often to have worked ourselves up into a state of growling cynicism, to maintain either as a lifelong stance is to impoverish our own lives and to embitter the lives of those around us. Which is no better in economic life than it is in any other part of life.