If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business,
by Tom Morris
Henry Holt and Company
TESTIFYING BEFORE THE SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE in 1952, Former General Motors President Charles Erwin Wilson said, "What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what's good for General Motors is good for the country." At first glance, many of us may disagree with the spirit in which Mr. Wilson made the comment. In his new book, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, Tom Morris provides a context in which the statement is true. What's good for General Motors, and indeed for all businesses, is living a life in accordance with several philosophical principles we can glean from the great philosophers.
Morris argues convincingly for the inclusion of a philosophically based ethical framework for business. He focuses on the principles of truth, beauty, goodness, and unity. In Morris's construct, living by these principles will lead us to happiness, satisfaction, and true excellence. These are the highest goals, and will be congruent with professional success. A business environment that will allow us to be happy and satisfied will also allow us to be prosperous and successful, on a personal and corporate level.
Morris examines each of his principles in details, and provides several examples of companies following these principles and succeeding. He cites companies that improved morale and productivity by providing fruit and other goodies to the employees. He talks about a janitor who is the most important person in a department because of his good attitude. The reader is still left asking, however, how we make this attractive idealized world into reality.
It's hard not to be cynical about the state of modern business ethics. Most corporations give lip service to living ethically, but the most important value is always the bottom line. Business operates on a zero-sum principle: If I lose market share, my competitor gains; only one of us can win.
This approach to business has far reaching impact. It affects how we deal with other companies and other nations. One of the most compelling arguments for free trade is that it will improve the quality of life for everyone, but it's hard to convince people of that when they think their jobs will shift to the cheaper labor market.
The zero-sum game also determines how businesses treat their employees. Business is a constant battle. There can be no slacking. Any employee that doesn't give 110% is not an asset. So we are faced with tough choices in our careers -- do we go watch the kid's baseball game, or do we stay at work late and be a "team player"?
Morris's paradigm provides an attractive balance. There is a growth in the business market of companies that at least talk about recognizing that profit is not the be all and end all. Many companies are operating on principles that state that long-term success depends on more humanistic factors: Treat your customers well, treat your employees well, and the profits will come. Strive only for profit, and you could lose your customers and employees.
Morris admits in his preface that he is not presenting any brilliant new insights. He is merely sifting through centuries of philosophy to tell us what we already know. It often seems that the latest new management wisdom is a rehashing of common sense. To a large extent, Morris's book is just this.
It should be self-evident that truth, beauty, goodness, and unity are keys to living a happy and satisfied life. It must be intuitive that ignoring these values for short-term gain jeopardize success in the long term. Yet if we look at modern business, it readily becomes apparent that common sense and dollars and cents seem to be strangers. Morris asks us to each become Aristotle, and conduct our business in accordance with these values. Living the ethical life -- centered on the values of truth, beauty, goodness, and unity -- is good for General Motors, it is good for the country. Most of all, it's good for us.