Blog: Rebalancing Society

The next step Greta…

23 March 2019

Dear Greta

Good for you. Thanks to your spirit, over a million youth have just marched for the sake of our future. What’s the next step?

You are 16, and concerned about climate change. I am 79, and concerned about it too, as well as the imbalance that fuels it. You sit in and give speeches about the problem. I write books and give speeches about the imbalance. You spoke bluntly at Davos, to “tepid” applause. No kidding! Years ago I spoke in the same forum and concluded that Davos is the place where many of the people who spend 51 weeks a year creating the problem spend the 52nd pretending to solve it. You are fed up with the inaction of your elders. I am fed up with the inaction of my youngers, who are the same people. For decades I have watched the problem growing steadily worse.

Dear Greta

Good for you. Thanks to your spirit, over a million youth have just marched for the sake of our future. What’s the next step?

You are 16, and concerned about climate change. I am 79, and concerned about it too, as well as the imbalance that fuels it. You sit in and give speeches about the problem. I write books and give speeches about the imbalance. You spoke bluntly at Davos, to “tepid” applause. No kidding! Years ago I spoke in the same forum and concluded that Davos is the place where many of the people who spend 51 weeks a year creating the problem spend the 52nd pretending to solve it. You are fed up with the inaction of your elders. I am fed up with the inaction of my youngers, who are the same people. For decades I have watched the problem growing steadily worse.

Our world is dangerously out of balance in favor of private sector interests that dominate our governments and our communities. These interests feed on the prevailing dogma of economics—that greed is good, markets are sacred, and governments are suspect—to bring us more production for more consumption with more waste and more warming.

Sit-ins and marches wake up people who are concerned but have not been active. But do they wake up the people most responsible for the problem? Was Donald Trump woken up by the massive marches after his election? If anything, he was amused. Were the financial sharks of Wall Street woken up by the occupation of their street? Mostly, I imagine, they were inconvenienced. In the white houses and behind the front streets are the backrooms where greed continues to reign supreme. And the problem goes well beyond this. The beneficiaries of this globalized world are doing very well the way things are, thank you, and that includes most of the people I know, and probably many that you know too. The icecaps may be melting, but the homes on the hills are safe from flooding—for now, at least.

What, then, has to happen—what’s the next step? You have been blunt; let me be likewise in my answer, quoting two lines from a song by Tom Lehrer about the Spanish civil war: “Though [Franco] may have won all the battles, we had all the good songs!” I like good songs too, but we had better start winning some battles.

We will have to do so by challenging specific behaviors that can no longer be tolerated—let’s call them the low-hanging outrages. They have to be targeted with clever campaigns that have teeth. Here’s a simple illustration. Some years ago, in San Antonio, Texas, people who were fed up with their utility company overpaid their bills by 1¢. That simple cent, multiplied many times over, tied this bureaucracy in knots. It backed off. From the local schoolyard to the global marketplace, it is amazing how an unexpected tactic can bring down a big bully. Just as David brought down Goliath.

There is no shortage of low-hanging outrages from which to pick. They just have to be picked carefully, to avoid, not only what could become violent, but also what can be seen as self-serving (such as university students protesting university fees).  The campaigns have to be lawful, altruistic, and, above all, clever—like that 1¢ one. There is as much imagination in the world as there are indecencies that need to be confronted by it.

Saul Alinsky wrote remarkable books about how, while liberals talk, radicals act: they rally around common cause. You sat down in front of the Swedish parliament. Good. Now surround it with thousands of you and don’t leave until you get action on those emissions. The people who pitched their tents on Wall Street can go after specific shenanigans taking place inside the buildings on that street; these are a veritable goldmine of outrages, not least, the appropriation of so much of wealth. In my own country, Canada, we can stop coddling the producers of some of the dirtiest oil on earth. And how about those of us on the consumption side of this problem, who do things like turn up the heat instead of putting on a sweater? We, too, are the exploiters, by appropriating too much of the world’s energy.

Does this mean civil disobedience? Not at all: it is civil and it is obedient.  Today’s civil disobedience comes from the people who violate human decency, those responsible for the legal corruption that has become so rampant.

So: you want people to “feel the power”? That you have already demonstrated. You claim “that the people will rise to the challenge.” This is the next step that needs to be demonstrated—by you youngers and we elders together.

Sköt om dig

Henry
(mintzberg.org)

Nailing Corporate Reformation to the Door

2 October 2018

Co-authored with Frederick Bird

In the sixteenth century, there were calls for reforms of the Christian Church, which was then the largest, wealthiest, and most global institution in the world. Some critics engaged in protests, others offered advice or called for a gathering of leaders. But what eventually sparked action was a poster nailed to the door of the All Saints Church, Wittenberg, in the fall of 1517, by Martin Luther, a monk and professor. He posted 95 theses about fundamental issues to be addressed. Thus began the Reformation.

Photo credit: Martin Luther [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Co-authored with Frederick Bird

In the sixteenth century, there were calls for reforms of the Christian Church, which was then the largest, wealthiest, and most global institution in the world. Some critics engaged in protests, others offered advice or called for a gathering of leaders. But what eventually sparked action was a poster nailed to the door of the All Saints Church, Wittenberg, in the fall of 1517, by Martin Luther, a monk and professor. He posted 95 theses about fundamental issues to be addressed. Thus began the Reformation.

Photo credit: Martin Luther [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At a meeting last November at the Drucker Forum in Vienna, Charles Handy called for a reformation of our time, concerning the business corporation.  David Hurst and Nick Hixson, both Drucker Associates, responded by asking a number of management thinkers to reflect, in the manner of Luther’s 95 theses, on ills and remedies concerning the corporation today.

As management professors, one of us trained in religious studies, we have taken up this call, rather literally. We propose 9.5. theses (Luther’s were highly repetitive!), directed at fostering reform of an institution whose influence today is arguably comparable to that of the Christian Church at the time of Luther.

These 9.5  theses are not meant to be comprehensive, only, like those of Luther, a possible starting point for reformation. One thesis is taken straight from Luther, and all but one of the others have been modified from, and inspired by, Luther’s own words. (An # designates the number of Luther’s original thesis, with our modifications of his original in italic.) Like Luther, we state these theses without comment: they should speak for themselves.

1. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory. (#27)

2. Those who believe they can be certain of their salvation because they have achieved higher share value will be eternally damned, together with their consultants. (#32)

3. Why do so many corporations, whose combined wealth is today greater than the wealth of most nations, build their one basilica of globalization for their own benefit rather than for everyone? (#86)

4. Away with all those economists who say to the people “more, more, more” when the people need better, better, better. (#92)

5. … for the souls in purgatory, fear by downsizing should necessarily decrease and distribution of wealth increase. (#17)

6. Leadership indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to the good works of communityship. (#41)

7. The true treasure of business is to add value to society. (#62)

8. Because love grows by works of love, businesses become better when they engage in love of the people and the planet. (#44)

9. To repress these very sharp arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the corporations and their CEOs to the ridicule of their enemies and to make citizens unhappy. (#90)

9.5. Blasphemous is the dogma that greed is godly and markets are sacred.

We believe that this dogma has taken our world out of balance, in favor of self-interest over collective needs and the common good. As a consequence, tyrants are being elected, only to undermine further the very democracies that put them into office. With no countervailing power to stop them—no serious global government, no reliable superpower—these tyrants threaten peace on earth. Faith will have to be restored in our institutions, including a reframing of corporate social responsibility, to favor balance in society.

© Frederick Bird and Henry Mintzberg 2018. For more on balance, see Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center.

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Please welcome CSR 2.0

7 December 2017

I address this especially to business executives, but as citizens of their societies and neighbors in their communities.

Why do we focus on the conditions of our problems instead of addressing their root causes? Medicine, for example, gives far greater attention to treating diseases than to preventing what caused them in the first place. Jonas Salk provided a telling exception: instead of treating polio, he created a vaccine to eradicate it.

0.0, 1.0, 2.0

I address this especially to business executives, but as citizens of their societies and neighbors in their communities.

Why do we focus on the conditions of our problems instead of addressing their root causes? Medicine, for example, gives far greater attention to treating diseases than to preventing what caused them in the first place. Jonas Salk provided a telling exception: instead of treating polio, he created a vaccine to eradicate it.

0.0, 1.0, 2.0

Much the same can be said about corporate social responsibility, or CSR. A corporation is considered responsible when it attends to the evident conditions of some social or environmental problem. But imagine how much more responsible it would be to address the underlying cause of that problem? Finding a new way to recycle waste may be good, but helping to reduce the generation of that waste is better. Not good, however, is Coca-Cola’s promotion of exercise programs for obese children, because its own products are a significant cause of that obesity. This, like greenwashing—pretending to be environmentally friendly—borders on what we can call Corporate Social Irresponsibility, or CSI.

We are inundated with CSI these days, some of it verging on the criminal—for example, banks that register customers for accounts they never requested or automobile companies that cheat on emission controls. And how about the massive private funding of American election campaigns This is a form of legal corruption tantamount to bribery.

Let’s label the irresponsible activities, CSI 0.0; the responsible attention to conditions, CSR 1.0; and the substantial addressing of cause, CSR 2.0. While we should be appreciating CSR 1.0 for its damage control, we should be welcoming CSR 2.0 for helping to reverse the damage. We need as much serious corporate social responsibility as we can get.

Imbalance as the root cause

I see imbalance in society as the root cause of many of our major problems, including global warming and income disparities. In my book Rebalancing Society, I trace the tipping point toward the current imbalance back to 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Western pundits at the time declared that capitalism had triumphed, over communism. They were mistaken. Balance had triumphed, over imbalance. A healthy country balances the market forces of the private sector with the democratic needs of the public sector and the community concerns of the plural sector (“civil society”).  Those regimes of Eastern Europe were severely out of balance, on the side of their public sectors, while the successful countries of the West were better balanced across their three sectors.

Since 1989, however, there has been a marked decline in the health of many countries, most notably the United States. The country now faces alarmingly high rates of incarceration, obesity, income disparities, and drug taking, accompanied by, of all things, a sharp decline in social mobility (particularly the chances of poor children moving up the social ladder). All of this reflects the escalating imbalance in American society.

The mistaken belief that capitalism triumphed in 1989 has enabled capitalism to triumph since then, tilting the country toward the private sector. Think about the lop-sided lobbying that now overwhelms Congress, as a result of that legal bribery—most of it in favor of business interests. How ironic that the very problem of imbalance that brought down communism is now bringing down democracy.

In much of this, corporate America has hardly been an innocent bystander. This is most evident in the congressional lobbying, but also in the intensification of global warming by the promotion of fossil fuels as well as by the stock markets’ relentless demand for MORE. Likewise have income disparities been widened by the shift to contract work that has diminished workers’ wages while weakening their protections. And at the root of this has been the investor obsession with Shareholder Value, as if no other stakeholders, let alone basic human values, matter.

The business fix? 

Most of our major problems reduce to a single foreboding one: how to reverse the imbalance before it’s too late? There is widespread belief In America that if the country has a problem, business will have to fix it. Proponents of this fix point to private (so called win-win) ventures for example, that bring down the cost of windmills and solar panels. No doubt ”doing well by doing good” is beneficial. Not beneficial, however, are the many companies that do well by doing bad, or else do well by doing nothing. There is no win-win wonderland out there.

Now we see a whole spate of proposals for what can be called adjectival capitalism: Sustainable Capitalism, Caring Capitalism, Regenerative Capitalism, Inclusive Capitalism, Conscious Capitalism, Democratic Capitalism (this one with democracy as the adjective and capitalism as the noun!). All of this indicates the problem more than the solution.

Capitalism certainly needs fixing, especially the frenetic stock markets and the deplorable pursuit of Shareholder Value. But that will happen, not by capitalism getting itself right so much as by society getting capitalism into its rightful place, namely the marketplace. How did a word coined to describe the funding of private enterprises become the be all and end all of human existence? It is the balance in society that we need to get right, and that will not be done by business alone, or, for that matter, by government or community action alone.

Responsible Responses

What, then, can responsible businesses do? They can start by recognizing the role they may have played in creating these problems—if not deliberately, then as a byproduct of their economic activity—so that they can address their causes. Moreover, decent businesses will have to challenge the indecencies of other businesses, not least by supporting legislation intended to correct these indecencies.  Above all is the need for responsible businesses to engage in more collaboration with government organizations and community associations. Consequential solutions, especially for the problem of imbalance itself, will have to come from consolidating the capabilities of the major institutions of all three sectors: communities engage, governments legitimize, businesses invest.

Is the private sector prepared to recognize that it has too much power? Are many of us ready to temper our self-serving individualism for the sake of our collective and communal needs in society? Will international businesses and the international agencies so beholden to economic dogma acknowledge the social, political, and environmental downsides of globalization (to be discussed in a forthcoming TWOG)? History offers scant evidence of centers of power voluntarily relinquishing power. But these are no ordinary times, with the looming threat of global warming and the prevalence of nuclear weapons in a world of so many thugs in high office.

So, please, enough of business as usual, especially in the form of CSI 0.0. Beyond CSR 1.0, it is time for CSR 2.0—time for the citizens and neighbors who work in business to get serious about corporate social responsibility.

© Henry Mintzberg 2017. For more on this issue, see Part V (“Who Should Control the Corporation?”) of my book Power In and Around Organizations (out of print, but available for downloading at no cost, also in a summary article). This lays 8 positions around a horseshoe, from state control to full autonomy, with the CSR position in the middle (Chapter 20).

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