Not all organizations that are great are good. But all organizations that are good, achieve a form of greatness.
For further proof of the first point, consider the recent struggles of Amazon. I don’t mean that they are struggling financially. In fact, the lockdown measures implemented over the last year that crippled and challenged most small to medium-sized businesses around the world, have been an absolute boon to companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple.
Confused about some of the economic and political decisions made over the last year? Cui bono? These folks bono. And this guy. And strangely, this guy.
Don’t get me wrong. I like capitalism, but it’s not a moral framework and doesn’t produce moral outcomes in and of itself. It’s hypocrisy that sticks in my craw.
So, while companies like Amazon relentlessly virtue signal their wokeness to us plebes, they’ve apparently been busy paying starvation wages and overseeing deplorable working conditions for their lowest paid employees. While Google, Nike, Microsoft and Apple supposedly champion civil rights in North America, they readily kneel for a totalitarian communist regime in China – all for access to cheap (and often forced) labor and new markets.
Again, greatness is not necessarily synonymous with goodness.
But it’s too easy to beat-up on the titans of industry. Oligarchs gonna oligarch. Humanity has always had to contend with amoral sociopathy in the upper stratosphere of the social and economic hierarchy. Contending with those folks in particular is a conversation for another day. What I’d like to consider here is the extent to which each of us can, and should, turn that same lens to ourselves and our own humble organizations.
Is it possible for a company to pursue both technical and financial “greatness”, while also pursuing goodness and human dignity for its employees and those it serves with equal passion?
There are three primary schools of thought on this question.
First, imagine a robber-baron oligarch, after a few scotches or too many pot gummies saying, “Honestly, no. If you want two-day delivery of nearly any good on the planet available to you at the click of a button at these prices, then this is what it takes. Employee working conditions? Poverty wages? Enjoy your toothpaste and batteries delivered by drone in thirty minutes or less. Let the serfs in the warehouse eat cake.”
Second, at the other end of the continuum, we have Marx and his hydra-headed progeny. We can imagine one of uncle Karl’s present day offspring sipping organic chai in a Che t-shirt in some ironically dingy café near Brown ranting that, “No. There will be no peace between the classes until we produce for use instead of profit. Dismantle all structural oppressions! (which as it turns out, is kind of like everything… apparently.)”
Of course, anyone trying to take this proposition seriously will have to set aside the many real-life examples of Marxism in action such as the USSR, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Venezuela, Ethiopia, the hopefully crumbling Cuban regime, and estimates of 100 million dead from a long line of failed utopian experiments led by professors and ex-college students. But don’t worry. Those weren’t examples of real communism. The new reds will get it right this time. Okey-dokey smokey. Calling it socialism won't help the sales pitch either.
So where does that leave us? Is there a door number three? If so, what’s behind it?
The third option is not conceptually complicated, but it does require a challenging paradigm shift. The exceptionally good news is that the third option is also the most likely path to sustainable long-term success – economically, socially, and morally.
The third option is to pursue relational and human excellence with the same innovation, investment, and vigor as a company pursues technical performance. Not either/or, but both/and.
In fact, a co-equal focus on human and performance excellence is the defining characteristic of the world’s most sustainably innovative and successful companies.
These companies avoid the amoral hyper-individualism of the robber baron capitalist – who views success as only derived by extracting time, talent, and dignity from employees at the lowest possible expense. It also avoids the fundamentally immoral and flawed logic of the collectivist – who views all corporate activity as a zero-sum power struggle between managerial oppressors and their discontents.
Alternately, a company that pursues human dignity as a core element of its’ purpose would likely still allow for hierarchy as needed, but emphasize building a greater sense of belonging, more voice in decisions that impact employees, and greater agency to make change. And, with greater belonging, voice, and agency, comes increased creativity, more horizontal sharing of diverse viewpoints, and ultimately radical innovation – in external performance, internal cultural development, and structural concerns around renumeration and quality of life.
Most companies have pockets and silos where an environment like the above is the norm, but such cultures rarely exist company-wide.
The world and work changing heroes of this generation will not be high-tech robber barons or social-revolutionaries. They will be the leaders who create organizations that excel because of their commitment to human dignity and not in spite of it.
Any ambitious and technically competent leader has a shot at making an organization great. The real challenge is, can you also make it good?
P.S. Hey Bezos… I’ll happily wait a few more days for those new flip flops I ordered. Heck, I’ll wait a week if it means your delivery drivers can stop to take dignified bathroom breaks. I know you’re headed off to space in few days in your giant phallic rocket. But seriously man, think about it.
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