I wasn’t surprised when the World Economic Forum (WEF) posed the following question on Twitter:
@Davos: “How can we make capitalism more moral?”
After all, WEF itself has become “more moral” over time. The annual WEF gathering in Davos was historically about bringing business and political leaders together to gauge the state of the global economy and generate ideas to drive economic growth, thereby “improving” the state of the world. Over the past few years, WEF has tackled increasingly broad notions of business’ role in society, including how business can operate more responsibly. In this regard, recent summit themes have ranged from “Shared Norms for a New Reality” (acknowledging that the 21st Century demands new normative behaviors, that which we should do) to “The Great Transformation” (allowing for the new models we seek for today’s economic and governance realities).
This year, WEF focused on “Resilient Dynamism” with sessions on “the Moral Economy” and “the Values Context.” Both resiliency and dynamism are qualities enabled by vibrant and virtuous individual or organizational character, and so it is only natural that amid the conversations at Davos this year, an earnest debate emerged about the morality of capitalism itself.
As the CEO of a company whose mission is to “inspire principled performance,” my bread-and-butter is to consider this very question – and so I had a few immediate, 140-characters-or-less reactions to @Davos:
“Start by not implying it’s immoral but rather [in practice] amoral. That’s more inclusive”
“Scaling ‘sustainable’ not ‘situational’ values to be ‘too sustainable to fail’”
“Reading Wealth of Nations informed by the fact that Adam Smith was a Moral Philosopher”
While these proved good Twitter conversation-starters, the plane ride home from Switzerland provided an opportunity for me to think more deeply about the nature of this @Davos question. Ultimately, here’s my suggestion: turn to the experts. But this time, the “experts” are not the likely suspects from prestigious business schools or consulting firms. Instead, to succeed in this new world, leaders should take a page, and some guidance, from some of our world’s greatest moral philosophers. Why?
I’ve written before that the most practical tool we have to understand and address the scale of our challenges – and to survive and thrive individually, organizationally and nationally —can be found in moral philosophy. We live in a world that has rapidly gone from connected to interconnected to interdependent. In government, business, and society, we are now rising and falling together. One banker at his desk can lose $2 billion and affect global markets. One vegetable vendor can catalyze a revolution toward freedom throughout the Middle East.
The most famous line from the Godfather – “It’s not personal, it’s only business” – no longer qualifies as sound management advice. That’s because we can no longer sustain separate, amoral spheres for our professional and personal lives. Everything is now personal as the world is now not just interdependent, it is morallyinterdependent. So much so that I consider moral philosophy to be the “killer application” of the 21stCentury.
Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein understood its power, when in 1953 he wrote, “What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” Today, we, metaphorically speaking, as flies who find ourselves in an ever shrinking bottle, are in an even greater need of leadership and direction on how to navigate the interdependent world.
I believe both can reliably come from moral philosophy. Moral philosophers examine areas that modern-day domain experts too often ignore: human values, core beliefs and character. Ancient leaders historically turned to moral philosophers for education, guidance, and to frame strategic challenges. For example, Aristotle served as Alexander the Great’s tutor and trusted mentor at the request of Alexander’s father, Philip. The philosopher imparted to his pupil the Aristotelian ideals of Greek civilization, and had great influence over the ruler’s worldview.
How did Aristotle and others like him do it? By applying their intellectual might to the deepest, broadest questions of life—why we exist, how society should organize itself, how institutions should relate to society, and the purpose of human endeavor, to name just a few. From climate to infrastructure to public safety to consumption habits to education, we gain clarity when we can view our challenges through a lens of moral philosophy. In this regard, here are 10 pointers from some of the thinkers who help us better understand the morality in our capitalist pursuits:
1. “The moral imagination diminishes with distance.” – David Hume
Pointer: We are no longer distant, and therefore we need to reawaken our moral imaginations. In this interdependent world, everyone’s values and behavior now matter more than we thought and in ways we never imagined because our actions affect more people than ever, in ways they never have before.
2. “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” – Epictetus
Pointer: Epictetus’ words resonate today because as power continues to shift to individuals, leadership itself must shift with it. Leadership is no longer about formal authority that commands and controls and exerts power over people, but rather about moral authority that connects and collaborates and generates power throughpeople. Think about what we’re asking of our people. Today, we want our employees to: go beyond merely serving customers to create unique, delightful, experiences; honorably represent their company and nurture its brand, not only when they are on the job, but whenever they publicly express themselves in tweets, blog posts, e-mails, or any other interaction; and be creative with fewer resources and resilient in the face of unimaginable uncertainty. These are big asks! These contributions will not come as the result of motivating employees to shift their behavior with throwaway bonuses and threats of punishment; instead, leaders must ask their people to elevate their behavior – a response that must be inspired through shared values and a purpose-inspired mission.
3. “We can learn to be whole by saying what we mean and doing what we say” – Martin Buber
Pointer: Authenticity and consistency have fast become our most valuable currency. Principled behavior breeds consistency – however inconvenient it might be at the time. Authenticity is experienced in meaningful connections with others. Successful leaders demonstrate principled behavior and manifest authenticity by how they interact with others—by being transparent, open, and direct with those around them; trusting them with the truth; and by putting the organization and its mission first above any perceived self-interest by taking the long-term over the short-term view.
Continued reading on Forbes.com.