by Michael Chabon (Harper, 2012. 480 pp)
Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize–winning author of numerous bestselling books, and Chairman of the Board of the MacDowell Colony. He, his wife (novelist Ayelet Waldman), and their children live in Berkeley, California.
Book review by Donovan Richards
Escaping to the Mountainside
“After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples.” (John 6:1-3 ESV)
While I don’t intend to draw any universal theological conclusions from these verses, I find Jesus’ insistence on maintaining space and solitude in the midst of a busy schedule of teaching and healing to be fascinating. Here, God Incarnate reveals his human side and the importance of recharging his batteries. Jesus chooses at this time to avoid the crowds—the very people to whom he has devoted his mission. At what point do we, as leaders, need to follow Jesus’ lead and step back from our important duties?
Telegraph Avenue, the latest release from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, thematically cuts to the heart of this question.
A Small Business Owner Drowning in the Complexity of Life
Set in Oakland, Telegraph Avenue is a heartfelt story surrounding the life of Archy Stallings, a small business owner and expecting father.
Archy’s business, a small record store called Brokeland Records that he founded in partnership with his best friend Nat Jaffe, is failing. People aren’t buying music anymore—let alone vinyl, the store’s specialty. To make matters worse, a music mega-store is slated to open a couple of blocks away, a development certain to remove what little hope Archy has left for business success.
Aside from his dwindling business prospects, Archy’s home life fares no better. He is woefully underprepared for the conclusion of his wife’s pregnancy; he carries zero patience for his incorrigible, formerly-famous movie star father; he has no strategy for the 14 year-old son of a former girlfriend who has arrived at his doorstep.
Archy’s life is complicated. It seems as if his futile attempts to balance his home and professional life leave everyone worse off.
When Life Requires Recalibration
The more I read about Chabon’s complicated protagonist, the more Jesus’ temporary escape into the mountains came to mind. Archy needs time to recharge, to make things right with his family, and to prepare for the new life he and his wife will bring into the world. But his dream to lead a profitable small business gets in the way.
As leaders, we need the wisdom and humility to recognize when it’s time to step aside and rejuvenate. Our life’s work must not be allowed to ruin either our own life or the lives of those around us.
Personally, I recall the time I needed to step down from leading worship. While the circumstances around this decision were painful, it allowed me to recalibrate my vocation and it helped me grow in my faith and my relationship with my wife.
Michael Chabon’s protagonist in Telegraph Avenue raises deep questions about what we value and how we can balance complicated lives. When the pressure mounts at work and at home, let's not forget to unplug once in a while. In doing so, we may come to understand the importance of stepping down from our position to recalibrate and help others. Or, we might find added strength to return to our work with the vigor and balance it requires.
How to tell when it is time to step down:
Are you facing diminishing returns? No matter the hours you devote to the cause, your organization seems to sputter.
Are you in a morally questionable situation? Staying put in your position pressures you to compromise your ethics.
Are you physically unable to perform your tasks to your highest potential? No matter the passion you have for your work, burnout is real. Whether it’s the rhythm of the Sabbath or a long-term sabbatical, don’t forget to charge your batteries.
This review appeared in Fieldnotes Magazine, a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership, on December 12, 2012.
Donovan Richards earned an M.A. in Business and Applied Theology from SPU and works as a consulting analyst for See Seven. You can read more reviews on Donovan's blog.
Book Review: Alleviating Poverty through Profitable Partnerships: Globalization, Markets and Economic Well-Being
by Patricia H. Werhane, Scott P. Kelley, Laura P. Harman and Dennis J. Moberg (New York: Routledge, 2010. vi + 163 pp)
Patricia Werhane is the widely-published chair of Business Ethics at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia. Werhane and co-authors Kelley and Hartman are colleagues at the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University. Dennis Moberg chairs business ethics at Santa Clara University.
Book review by Bruce Baker
A New Parable for Prosperity
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll feed himself for a lifetime. So goes the old parable, but this book brings us into the globalized market economy of the 21st century with a new parable for prosperity — create a profitable business venture by “maximizing the yield of the fish pond and the distribution of the fish by truly forging partnerships with the poor,” and you will reduce, and perhaps even eradicate, poverty forever (p. 17).
The central thesis of this book is that social enterprises of various kinds offer a winning strategy in the effort to break down the social structures and conceptual frameworks that trap billions of people in the cycle of poverty. Through profitable partnerships, businesses, and NGOs, governments and coalitions of the poor “can alleviate poverty by seizing market opportunities” (p. 125).
Poverty relief has always been a pillar of the “social gospel,” yet this book barely mentions the biblical mandates, aside from a solitary reference in passing to Luke 12:48 (p. 39). Rather than support their case with theological insights, these four professors of business ethics rely completely upon secular constructs of moral philosophy to bring academic credibility to their thesis.
While their approach has integrity, it ignores the deeper spiritual significance of the evangelical truth which seems ready to burst forth from these stories of personal and societal transformation. Given their ties to the Catholic universities of DePaul and Santa Clara, I suspect the authors would not disapprove of this faith-based interpretation of their work.
This is a well-written treatise on the social responsibility of business. The authors succeed in their aim to debunk the false old “caricature of greedy cigar-smoking robber barons helping meek, barefooted beggars” (p. 124). Of course this is an easy target. Perhaps there was a time when that idealized image of businesspeople made sense, but no more. Gone are the days when Milton Friedman’s litany — “the social responsibility of business is to make money” — held sway as a self-evident truth. We now live in a new “complex reality” which demands us to “change our shared narratives about for-profit ventures and… recalibrate our mindsets regarding how poverty issues are most effectively addressed” (p. 17).
This “changing of narratives” and “recalibration of mindsets” has been Professor Werhane’s main message for more than two decades. She has parlayed the idea of “moral imagination” into a fruitful stream of business ethics publications. The basic idea is that we need to be open to new ideas, concepts, and mental maps in order to find innovative solutions to moral dilemmas.
In the case of poverty, this means needing to let go of old notions like the “separation thesis” (p. 62) which views business profits and social issues as entirely independent pursuits. That falsehood has created the mistaken impression that charity is the only viable approach to fight poverty. Similarly, we must abandon the outmoded idea that those at the BoP (bottom of the pyramid) are capable only of receiving hand-outs, and see them instead as truly industrious and motivated workers, consumers, and providers for their families.
Worm’s Eye View
One of the best features of the book is its ample use of personal, “worm’s-eye view” (p. 51) stories to elicit compassion and bring to life a new narrative of abundant hope in profitable partnerships that can alleviate poverty. Each chapter begins with a personal account of a true story which brings the book’s thesis to life.
Additionally, many fresh case studies are used to illustrate the business principles, such as Ciudad Saludable, a thriving enterprise founded by micro-entrepreneurs who figured out how to rid the filthy streets of poor barrios in Lima, Peru of garbage while producing organic fertilizer, creating jobs, and simultaneously earning a profit (pp. 97–98).
These stories are so ripe with the fruit of redemption that several of them might well serve as sermon illustrations. Notwithstanding the generally secular approach of this book, Christian faith comes out through direct quotes of people whose lives are being transformed.
There is Strive Masiyawa, for example, the founder of a telecommunications company in Zimbabwe who defied corrupt principalities and took a stand on his religious convictions: “I’m a born-again Christian, and that was a decision I took… [E]very day I must persuade myself that I am practicing my conviction” (p. 94). Masiyawa’s testimony gives voice to the evangelical promise of hope that underlies the power of transformation seen in these stories of successful social ventures.
Corporate Moral Responsibility
One of the most useful insights is that the notion of CSR (corporate social responsibility) is in need of reform if its initiatives are to result in truly effective and sustainable efforts to eradicate poverty. Unless a poverty-fighting project emerge[s] from “the corporation’s raison d’être, it can neither maximize its effectiveness nor be said to be morally good” (p. 69).
Businesses come into existence and succeed by virtue of bringing particular gifts of talent and skill to bear on meeting specific needs of specific customers. To neglect or underutilize these gifts, even for the sake of some ostensibly “good” act of philanthropy, would be to miss one’s true identity and fail to live into one’s calling with complete integrity. The authors therefore advocate new terminology — corporate moral responsibility (CMR) — to emphasize the link between a business’s strategy and moral duty, and thereby to avoid the mental trap of the “separation thesis” (pp. 70–73).
While the central thesis of the book is ably argued and well-supported through practical examples, its ethical reasoning and methodology come off sounding a bit simplistic at times. For example, there is the prescriptive advice to be imaginative and make decisions by “second-guessing possible outcomes” (p. 126). This habit of basing decisions upon the anticipated consequences of “positive and negative effects” (p. 126) runs throughout the book, and reveals a distinctly utilitarian approach to ethics.
Those are minor shortcomings, however, in this timely and readable book. It will serve well as an academic text, with a detailed 17-page bibliography, useful index and numerous practical examples. The new parable of abundant hope in social enterprise is well-told, and deserves a wide reading.
Dr. Bruce Baker is an assistant professor of business ethics in the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University.