On Wall Street, where shareholder “value” is vigorously pursued through ever leaner and meaner organizations, business as usual changed abruptly on September 11, 2001. Within hours after the tragedy, obsession with self gave way to serving others. At the very epicenter of self-interest, people became engaged in collective effort.

There is a message for management in this. The point is not that concern for others is suddenly going to replace self-interest, but that there has to be a balance between the two. The events of September 11 and the following days helped to make evident how out of balance our society has become. The role of management — responsible management — is to work toward restoration of that balance.

The House That Self-Interest Built

In the past 15 years, we in North America have experienced a glorification of self-interest perhaps unequalled since the 1930s. It is as if, in denying much of the social progress made since then, we have reverted to an earlier and darker age. Greed has been raised to some sort of high calling; corporations have been urged to ignore broader social responsibilities in favor of narrow shareholder value; chief executives have been regarded as if they alone create economic performance. Meanwhile, concern for the disadvantaged — simple, old-fashioned generosity —has somehow been lost.

A society devoid of selfishness is certainly difficult to imagine. But a society that glorifies selfishness can be imagined only as base. The intention here is to challenge such a society — not to deny human nature, but to confront a distorted view of it. In so doing, we wish to promote another characteristic no less human: engagement.

A syndrome of selfishness has taken hold of our corporations and our societies, as well as our minds. (See “A Syndrome of Selfishness.”) It is built on a series of half-truths, each of which drives a wedge into society: from a narrow view of ourselves as “economic man,” to a distorted view of our values — reduced to shareholder value, to a particular view of leadership as heroic and dramatic, to a nasty view of organizations as lean and increasingly mean, to an illusionary view of society as a rising tide of prosperity. All of this looks rather neat, as does a house of cards. Before it collapses outright, we would do well to balance it with a rather different set of beliefs.

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References

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