Business Leaders as “Statesmen”

Business ethics prof Archie Carroll wrote this provocative column, in the Athens Banner-Herald: “Business leaders need to act like statesmen.” Carroll’s is a different take on a traditional theme that seems especially relevant lately, namely the apparent leadership gap at the top of corporate America. Carroll’s particular spin is an analogy with the world of politics: most of us can name political figures we admire for their character and accomplishments; fewer of us can name similarly respect-worthy corporate leaders. Carroll writes:

We are in the midst of the worst business scandal in most of our lifetimes. It is not just an economic crisis as it is being portrayed. We have seen financial services firms lobbying behind the scenes to make sure they get their fair share of the bailout money. We have seen the Big Three auto chief executive officers commuting back and forth between Detroit and Washington arguing why they deserve a bailout rather than being required to submit to bankruptcy for their strategic ineptitude.
What has been missing from this unfolding scenario? Business leaders who act like statesmen, standing up and taking leadership for this powerful institution we call “business.” As we wrap up arguably the most damaging year for the reputation, confidence and trust of the business system, there has been very little to report in terms of business leadership or statesmanship.

I’m not sure what to make of this analogy between political and corporate leadership. Surely the call for something like statesmanship in business makes sense to the extent that it’s a call for someone who provides vision, takes responsibility, and brings a sense of gravitas to important discussions. Those qualities are surely as important in commerce as in politics. But the disanalogies are important, too. Carroll suggests that the kind of corporate ‘statesmen’ he has in mind would be leaders who would promote “the public good.” But in business, the way in which business typically promotes the public good is by innovating and by making things. Direct pursuit of the public good — say, by liquidating corporate assets and giving the proceeds to charity — would quickly result in lawsuits being filed by justifiably-angry shareholders.

So, again, an interesting & provocative article. But I think the pertinent question is not quite the question Carroll asks. He seems to be asking, ‘Where are the statesmen of the corporate world?’ I’d rather ask, ‘If in fact corporate statesmanship is a positive ideal, what should corporate statesmanship look like, anyway?’

(For a very good scholarly examination of a different political-corporate analogy, see Wayne Norman & Pierre-Yve Neron’s Citizenship, Inc., Business Ethics Quarterly, Jan 2008, Vol. 18 Issue 1, p1-26.)

1 comment so far

  1. jacquie on

    Hi Chris,I just read a good few of your blogs here and feel inspired to respond to the ‘Business Leaders as statesmen’ article. Maybe it is time to stop looking to the large corporations for all of the answers on this front….maybe it is time to look to the grass roots inovators, “tribes” (Seth Godin has lots to say about it), I think if you look in these realms you will find your ‘Business Leaders as Statesmen’ (or perhaps’ Stateswomen’). They are already out there, they are already doing it and have been for quite some time. I think if you look toward those social entrepreneurs, full of passion and full of mission for the greater good…oh and making a profit too by the way…you will answer your own question….’If in fact corporate statesmanship is a positive ideal, what should corporate statesmanship look like, anyway?’These ‘Statesmen’ take many shapes and forms but they are out there doing it in a great big way. A good chunk of the really good ones I suspect are not on any radar at this point. I think that is the great part about it. They are not motivated to make a difference by being on the radar. This is where ‘Rambunctious Social Entrepreneurism resides and this is where they make a great big huge impact for the greater good.JacquieMinneapolis, MNhttp://www.finnegans.orgThe home of Rambunctious Social Entrepreneurism

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