Can business ever be just about business? or politics just about politics? or the arts just about the arts? or education just about education?
The wisest wisdom has always said no.
Life is too complex, for all of us. One area of life is connected to every other area of life— by the very nature of the universe (“uni”verse that it is) —which is why the most important learning we do is interdisciplinary, the in-between conversations that connect the conversations the disciplines have on their own. To master cellular biology is not the same thing as mastering 19th-century English literature; the questions of the one are not the questions of the other. So it is not that specialization is an evil, as there are times when we want someone who has spent the years required to understand the precise character of the brain, its intricacies, its dimensions, its diseases and pathologies— and of course what is needed to repair it.
But even brain surgeons need to be human beings too, first and last. They need to be intelligent, but in a multi-dimensional way— and so morally intelligent, emotionally intelligent, historically intelligent, sociologically intelligent and more, if their gifts are to honestly serve the common good.
I thought of this yesterday as I spent several hours at the Mars Corporation headquarters, taking part in a serious conversation about economics and the world, particularly about the way that business ought to be done, if human beings are to flourish.
For most of ten years I have been working with Mars on the Economics of Mutuality, a morally and institutionally serious effort to rethink the very way business works in the world. For a many billion dollar a year company to even ask that question is unusual, perhaps rare. In fact, why even bother? Isn’t business, business? And if you can make enough money to be charitable at the end of the year, isn’t that all that can be expected? Maybe even more than can be expected?
But what if justice and mercy, honesty and integrity, truthfulness from beginning to end, were the contours of our lives and labors? What if we decided that good business necessarily requires a more complex bottom line, a rethinking of the very purposes of business? What if doing well and doing good were a seamless reality? What if personal convictions were integrally woven into public practices? And of course, in the middle of our conversation was the hard work of making peace with the proximate— of something that is right and good and true and just, even if we cannot find our way to everything, where every wrong is righted and every hope is addressed finally and fully.
We were hosted by Jay Jakub, the Director of External Research at Mars, and a long friend, the one who initially drew me in to this work, and one of the two executives who have given the primary leadership at Mars on this project. Two friends who lead other organizations joined in, Michael Bontrager, CEO of the Chatham Financial Corporation, and Mark Rodgers, Principal of the Clapham Group, who brought their own commitments and insights into the conversation. To a person we have given years to careful and critical evaluation of the marketplaces of the world, working in the global financial markets as Michael does, and consulting with the largest foundations in the world as Mark does; and then me too, in my own “always-the-professor-at-the-table” of the conversations of my world. As Jay put it yesterday, “You are the one who reminds us of purpose, of why we are doing this and what this is about.” I hope so.
For most of my life I have been drawn to people who ask hard questions. Or at least questions that question the status quo, the way it’s “always been done.” Perhaps it was coming of age in the counter-culture, or being a second son, or maybe even my deepest instincts formed by my faith in the counter-reality of the kingdom of God being the primary reality, but from the first days when I was beginning to grow beyond my childhood beliefs about everything, I have yearned for something more. The connections between things have mattered to me, i.e. if this is true, then what about this? and how does this relate to that?
The people I am drawn to are like that too, in their very-different-from-me ways. I will never be an executive for a global corporation, or a CEO of another, or a political strategist either— or anyone but frail, finite me — but to have friends who long for coherence across the whole of life is a gift; each one bringing unique but collaborative vocations to bear on our common calling, each one asking deeper questions about coherence, about the interrelationships of ideas and beliefs, of practices and choices, not only for individuals but for institutions as well.
Years ago I was persuaded that the “nothing-buttery” approach to life was flawed. That human beings are “nothing but.” That sex is nothing but. That work is nothing but. That psychology is nothing but. That politics is nothing but. Everything is more than that because everyone is more than that. Our conversation yesterday, in the midst of the Mars Corporation and its M&Ms, was a signpost that pointed a different way, arguing against the belief that “business is nothing but.” Simply said, it was a reminder that sometimes in some places some people give their very lives for something more.