An occasional essay by Bruce Baker, presented to the Center for Integrity in Business
What does it take to get a new company off the ground? Or to bring a new product to market? We all know that new business development requires a certain kind of “right stuff”—an entrepreneurial spirit, if you will—a kind of energy and enthusiasm which aims to do something new and different because it’s worth doing. It takes a certain kind of character and spiritual energy to push past all the obstacles that stand in the way. There seems indeed to be some kind of “right stuff” which is just as important in launching a business as it is in launching a space capsule.
Strength of human spirit is required in such endeavors. In business, we may refer to this strength as “spiritual capital,” an ingredient just as crucial to success as financial capital. We find spiritual capital in people who seem to have the right stuff when it comes to entrepreneurism. This spiritual capital seems to be like art—we know it when we see it, but we have a hard time defining it. But what if we could get better at recognizing it, understanding it, cultivating it and rewarding it? What a benefit that would be for building high-performance businesses with integrity and the “right stuff”! That’s exactly what I hope to help do with my current research project. I’m researching companies where spiritual capital is on display: identifying it, interviewing the entrepreneurs who have it, and analyzing the organizations where it thrives. I can think of nothing more thrilling in my business career than to have been a part of entrepreneurial start-ups in several different places. One of those places (which has become famous for its own special mystique) is Silicon Valley, and that's where my research into this topic will begin.*
California’s Silicon Valley symbolizes the entrepreneurial spirit which has made American business the world’s pace-setter for inventiveness and technological advancements. The success of start-up companies in Silicon Valley can be traced back to the early days of “Bill & Dave’s” garage in Palo Alto, where in 1938 they developed the audio oscillator which launched the company that still bears their names—Hewlett Packard. The prolific productivity of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have followed in their footsteps during the past 70 years has become legendary, and has led to the creation a venture capital industry which leads the world in wealth-creation through entrepreneurial start-ups.
The culture of these entrepreneurial companies deserves to be studied for the sake of the witness it can bring to a theological understanding of human inventiveness and industriousness. How do entrepreneurial companies recognize, enhance and harness the creative talents of the human spirit? What can we learn from their experience about the concept of spiritual capital? To what extent do these companies formulate and communicate an ethos that recognizes and builds upon the source of human dignity found in the imago Dei? These are some of the questions I’ll be pursuing.
In academic terms, the hypothesis to be tested is that there are models of transformational leadership at work here which point to a transcendent concept of human nature. This understanding of human nature transcends other concepts, such as homo economicus, an idea popularized in 20th-century economics based on the idea that human nature can be reduced to utilitarian, conscious decisions to maximize happiness. The flaw in that idea of human nature is that the quintessential humanness of human kind cannot be reduced to economics functions; but rather it has to be understood in a larger context of spirituality expressed in and through relationships with one another and with God.
This research project therefore aims to discover how the goals, aspirations, leadership styles and corporate cultures represented by Silicon Valley companies bear witness to a bigger notion of human nature—that is, to a theological understanding of human nature. By studying the entrepreneurial ethos of representative companies, our hope is to learn practical lessons which managers and entrepreneurs can use to build up and deploy spiritual capital for the sake of their employees, customers and the greater community.
If this sounds interesting, I would love to hear from you. Here’s how you can help: send me an email. Share your ideas with me regarding what “spiritual capital” means to you. Share stories with me, and give me examples of people and companies you know. Perhaps you would even be willing to take part in a personal interview on the topic. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks! And thanks for your support of the Center for Integrity in Business. They occupy a unique and much-needed niche by providing thought leadership in some of the most crucial aspects of business.
* By the way, Seattle is right there on a par with Silicon Valley these days, but I’m going to start my research with the Silicon Valley, which is where a critical mass of the start-up culture seems to have first arisen.
Dr. Bruce Baker is Asst. Professor of Business Ethics at Seattle Pacific University. His previous work includes founding and leading high-tech companies, and serving as a general manager at Microsoft. The CIB is pleased to sponsor his current research project: Silicon Valley and the Human Spirit: an inquiry into the entrepreneurial ethos of California’s Silicon Valley with lessons for the development of spiritual capital. For further information you may contact Dr. Baker at email@example.com.
First there was Occupy Wall Street, but now the noisiest protest seems to be coming from those who wish to occupy the Internet. The irony of it all is that this time, it’s the powerful corporations who are staging the sit-in (or ‘blackout’ or ‘shutdown’, as the case may be), ostensibly on behalf of grassroots consumers. The power brokers of cyberspace, led by Google and Wikipedia, have mounted a substantial protest against the anti-piracy bills being debated in Congress. The bills known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Prevent Internet Piracy Act) have been attacked as threats to our freedom of speech and free market economics.
“Imagine a world without free knowledge…” begins Wikipedia’s protest page, “Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet” [BBC News, NY Times, Jan. 19, 2012]. This must be some powerful bad medicine, if it threatens to kill the patient. At least, that seems to be the position taken by Wikipedia’s publicists.
Whether or not these pieces of legislation have been well-crafted is certainly open to debate. I’m not concerned here with the legalities, but rather with the moral stance of the corporate protesters. The invective being thrown at these bills calls into question the integrity of the internet companies’ response. What moral weight do their tweets and texts bear? Consider the source: these proclamations and accusations are voiced by the companies who make their living by building and driving traffic in cyberspace.
The protesters are careful, of course, to avoid any appearance that they are in favor of piracy. They don’t question the motivations or intentions of the legislation aimed at reining in the pirates out there far from our shores (China, Russia and the Middle East are frequently listed as pirate-friendly safe harbors).
Rather than offer constructive suggestions however for how to combat piracy, the corporate protests seemed designed to upset and rally people to the cry that this legislation may be bad for business. For their business, that is. Let’s be clear about that, because it was designed specifically to protect the business of other companies who produce the valuable content being peddled in cyberspace. One protester in San Francisco, representing an online travel company, put it plainly, “this legislation is bad, it would directly impact our company.” [NY Times, Jan. 19, 2012]
It’s the self-serving tone of such protests that raises the question of integrity. There is precious little moral content in the argument that what’s bad for my business is bad, regardless of how it affects others.
Of course the protesters do not mean to suggest that their moral footing is grounded in self-interest; rather, they imply that their moral authority stems from their concern for freedom as a general principle, as well as concern for the individual information consumers in particular. Of course, this argument is also suspect because their altruism seems to flow from concern for their own customers—the consumers of information services.
These moral arguments are weak. In the first instance, the argument for freedom could just as well be claimed by their opponents who argue for the freedom to earn a living and not to have their products stolen by pirates. Freedom of information is not an issue being questioned by the legislation; piracy is. In the second instance, concern for their own customers once again begs the question of whether the protests are self-serving.
A sincere moral argument rooted in altruism would take a different course. It would demonstrate motive and desire to help solve the piracy problem. It would demonstrate resolve and commitment on the part of the Board of Directors and management to help address a problem that is significantly undermining other significant businesses in our economy.
To protect one’s self-interest with defensive arguments lacks integrity to any source of morality higher than hunger or survival. True integrity recognizes a higher calling, namely, to act out of sincere concern for others’ welfare. That is why biblical notions of morality, based in kenotic self-emptying of self-importance, are just as critical to corporate moral authority as they are to personal integrity.
Perhaps the protesters had valid reason to question the structure of these bills. In that case they might have addressed those issues head-on in a manner which carried much greater moral strength. They might have shown integrity by demonstrating their sincere concern to solve the problem. They might have offered ways to strengthen their current anti-piracy policies. And yes, because “business is business”, this would most likely cost them something in the short run. But in the long run they would have demonstrated a concern for our entire economic system and not just for their own slice of it. They would also be living into the higher calling of integrity which flows from an understanding of the biblical call to be witnesses to a greater reality than pecuniary self-interest.
Bruce Baker is an Assistant Professor of Business Ethics at Seattle Pacific University.
Do you remember the last disaster movie you viewed? As buildings tumbled, did society turn into chaos when people looked to self-preservation above societal good? In this typical movie, were stores looted, innocents trampled or shot, and did the government violently seek to regain control?
Do you believe these representations to be the repercussions of lawlessness? Or, is the government so crucial to human functioning that when catastrophe strikes, and government loses its grip on authority, and all hell breaks loose?
A Paradise Built in Hell
I recently read a book by Rebecca Solnit titled, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. For her main thesis, Solnit argues that the disaster clichés flashing on the silver screen have no bearing on reality. Researching the stories of a wide variety of people over the disasters of the last century, Solnit concludes that the overall mentality of a society in response to catastrophe is to work together collectively for survival.
Of course, utopia does not spring from the ashes of a disaster; people can and do act selfishly. However, Solnit also notes that the response of those in authority during disaster is typically an overreaction. For example, looting is an obvious occurrence in the wake of a calamity. However, stealing possessions for profit and taking goods for basic survival carry completely different ramifications. Too often, leaders use excessive force in keeping looters at bay when a majority of the “looters” just need basic, life sustaining supplies.
Whether by sharing resources, administering medical treatment, or sacrificing safety for the sake of a stranger, most caught in a disaster work together.
What about Economic Disasters?
Given this counterintuitive observation, could a communal ethic help our approach to economic catastrophe? With the United States’ recent credit downgrade, and depressing economic outlook, it might be a good time to apply some of Solnit’s observations to the process of economic rebuilding.
Could our national government put politics aside long enough to respond to our economic challenges in ways that invite a spirit of cooperation amidst the chaos? Unfortunately, in all the partisan fighting, one refrain from Washington D.C. seems to be that Democrats’ and Republicans’ first goal is not to solve an issue for the benefit of society but to ensure the appearance of conservative or liberal values on a bill.
Moreover, representatives often work not for the good of the whole but for their specific regions and corporate donors. Too often, proposed bills resemble the needs of a select few instead of the many.
With Derek Thompson of The Atlantic suggesting that the current events in America and Europe point toward a no-end-in-sight recession, it might be time to assert that we face the kind of long-term economic uncertainty that warrants a calamity-type response. In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States encountered a period of unprecedented unity — an excellent example of community arising in disaster. Could we harness the same sense of shared mission today to solve our financial and economic woes? Is it possible for a nation to adopt the sense of urgency that comes from a catastrophe mindset without invoking total chaos?
Luckily, at the very worst, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that as a collective, we are more than capable of surviving, and eventually flourishing in the wake of a disaster, even one in the self-imposed, economic form.
Donovan Richards is the research assistant for the Center for Integrity in Business.