The Strength of Weakness
Last Friday and Saturday I attended ceremonies at Saïd Business School, Oxford University. The ceremonies were to honor Kim B. Clark, former dean of Harvard Business School and presently president of Brigham Young University-Idaho, a sister institution to Brigham Young University, where I teach. A fellowship at Saïd has been established in Clark's name, and these ceremonies were to announce that fellowship.
The dinners and lunch were lovely. The company was friendly and smart. The symposium Saturday afternoon was striking for its unity of theme, an insistence on the need for corporate moral, social, and environmental responsibility.
The presentations made clear that not only is being responsible (retaining workers during a downturn, for example) the right thing to do, it is ultimately more profitable. They underscored the necessity of thinking in terms of the long run and the overall results rather than thinking narrowly in terms of short term, personal, or corporate gain.
Charles Conn illustrated the symposium's discussion perfectly by comparing Cecil Rhodes and Yvon Chouinard, the former successful but not responsible, the latter both successful and responsible (in fact successful because or in spite of being responsible).
The events included a number of important, notable people, all of them extremely warm and likeable, all of them clearly upright in their relations with others. I was impressed by each, but no one was more impressive than someone whom I will not name because he would not want me to.
This person had worked hard to organize the event. He made arrangements for meals and music. He helped gather people together and get our honoree and others from one place to another. He was everywhere and always working, but he was quiet. Few but the honored participants knew what a large role he played in the event.
His interest was in seeing that the event came off well and in honoring President Clark, and he worked at that interest whole-heartedly. There was no false modesty or humility in his work; he did nothing to either bring or take away attention from himself since, as he saw things, what he was doing was not about him, not even indirectly.
In the grand scheme of things this event was not all that important. Someone made a generous donation to an important school at a prestigious university, and we honored the person in whose name the donation was made; noted speakers in the academic study of business argued for high ideals. But this wasn't a "cure for cancer."
In spite of that, the person I was so impressed by didn't measure his efforts by the importance of what he had been asked to do. He simply did what was needed when it was needed. I'm sure that if the task had been to clean the rain gutters of the church he would have been equally as organized, equally as effective, and equally as uninterested in attention for what he'd done. Since he, too, has been a successful businessperson, he can also do supposedly great things when called upon. But he did not measure the importance of his task, only its necessity.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.