Can Business Be Philosophical?

Recently I shared with you my passion for philosophy. You probably know I also have a profound passion for business.

And music, The Beatles, The Dodgers, wine, literature, children’s needs, social justice, and other stuff.

Back to philosophy and business: can they intersect?

This is where a lot of cynicism enters the picture.

Mark Zuckerberg says he is all about free speech and building global communities. He would have us believe a business—at least his business—should not be editing political expressions, even for accuracy. He asserts this is up to individuals to assess, or for the government to regulate if it can figure out a reasonable and fair way to impose guidance.

Should we believe Zuckerberg the visionary or Zuckerberg the voracious competitor? It doesn’t take a lot of analysis to know his goal is to keep selling ads, that any restrictions on free expression create a slippery slope for the addiction of his site contributors (i.e. all of us powering his pages with free content). It’s pretty clear he wants a level playing field around restrictions, meaning if the government regulates Facebook, he wants it to regulate all his competitors where he maintains a competitive advantage and is likely to win with ubiquitous rules.

Are free speech and “leave me alone to make money” compatible ideals, or the best possible excuse for self-interest?

Let’s try again.

Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” They are all about creating a definitive archive for global knowledge, about ensuring the best customer experience, and once upon a time about not being evil. That’s some philosophy!

Have you done a search on Google lately? Remember when organic search returns were clearly separated in columns from sponsored search returns? Yeah, that was before mobile made that largely impossible with much smaller screens. Today you practically have to be Sherlock Holmes to know what’s a paid ad on Google and what’s global knowledge. The keyword ads are everywhere. There’s a reason. They figured out how few bills the world’s information actually pays when displayed. They know which clicks are bankable in that trillion-dollar valuation.

One more for the road?

Apple wants us to believe it is at the heart of protecting our privacy, right to the edge of protecting the login codes of suspected dangerous criminals. Maybe that’s a big idea we have a hard time embracing because its scope means the tiny basket of bad eggs has to enjoy equal privacy if we want to protect the gigantic basket of good eggs.

Yet if privacy as a strategic mandate is a paramount position at Apple, how does the company abstract itself from all the apps that transmit our personal information to the data-mining servers of the world as fast as we type it in? Apple says it makes secure devices that are safe to use; that’s all they do and they do it brilliantly. If those devices open tunnels between those seeking data and those leaking data (again, all of us), that’s our tunnel to barricade or avoid, and it would be illogical to ask them to detour us otherwise.

Can a company have a point of view on elevated ideals, or are these polished notions just a bullhorn cry from the PR department?

I guess it all comes down to what we want to believe is a pure, important idea, and how far a company will go to spin a concept to its own advantage.

The issue is one of authenticity. Does a company truly embrace beliefs that are worth evangelizing, or are its statements around absolutes justifications of convenience?

Proclamations are not philosophy. A mission statement is not philosophy. Company values are not philosophy. All of these are constructs meant to unify the purpose of a business, but the business entity’s constant struggle with ambiguity, competition, and the demands of ownership too often compromises ideas when financial interests are at risk. We can say we want to act in a certain way, but will we always?

I have to admit, I have been guilty over the years of trying to inject philosophy into business practice. I have not been terribly successful. The conflicts of interest abound, and the enormously hard work of maintaining consistency can be exhausting. I used to have my employees read a book called Freedom and Accountability at Work by Peter Kostenbaum and Peter Block. It is about existentialism in the workplace. All but one colleague told me they couldn’t get past the first chapter. At least they were honest about it.

How do we avoid hypocrisy and cynicism in a world where we want to be better? We are often told Millenials want us to rise to a higher standard, that cause-based marketing resonates strongly with their brand loyalty. I think it is possible to “do good while doing well,” but I don’t think we accomplish this if we pretend we’re something that we’re not.

Instead of declarations that render themselves hopelessly artificial, companies can humble themselves in restraining their platitudes around the possible. Instead of attempting to hide behind crumbling categorical imperatives, business might be better suited to achievable standards that are consistently authentic.

Tell me the truth all the time, and I may trust you. Don’t tell me why your definition of truth is defined in the unreadable footnotes at the bottom of the page.

Be aspirational, and I may join in the celebration of your mission and values. Don’t tell me that your company has discovered or defined a nobility that somehow makes you better than your competition.

Be well-meaning in the goods and services you provide, whether ensuring quality or seeking a healthier supply chain, and I may respect your brand. Don’t proselytize and expect me to believe you are pursuing a higher calling—profits be damned—when transparency betrays your more obvious motivations.

A business can be great, even legendary, without being philosophical. Let it be honest, consistent, and authentic—that’s plenty to tackle and enormously difficult on top of being outrageously good at something. The agenda of business is measurable, culminating in success.

Leave philosophy to the philosophers. Who would that be? That can be any of us—the storytellers around the campfire, the quiet voices in a coffee shop, the ardent dialogue in anyone’s home. The agenda of sharing, exchanging, and challenging ideas is immeasurable and ultimately boundless.

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Photo: Pexels

Dan Rather Live

Last week I attended a talk with Dan Rather, who is on the road in support of his latest book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism. Produced by Live Talks Los Angeles, it was an especially engaging conversation because he was interviewed by someone equally interesting and unique, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Kareem made it clear this was an unusual gig for him because he is usually the one answering rather than asking interview questions. He opened with the observation that what he and Rather have in common is that today each of them is considered an elder statesman. Without missing the lightness of the moment, Rather jumped into the dialogue and made it clear that he does not think of himself in any way as a statesman. He also declared with humility that he is not a philosopher or a political scientist, just a very lucky reporter grateful to have enjoyed a long career in professional journalism.

I have to admit that I am quite the fan of Dan Rather. I was in college when he was passed the torch from Walter Cronkite. In those days anchoring the day’s national  news wrap-up was both a high honor and enormous responsibility. I was raised on the CBS Evening News and to this day it remains a welcome friend in my home, played back late at night from a digital recording. The anchor chair has changed hands several times over the years, but when Rather sat there, he carried the weight of the world’s biggest stories with dignity, authenticity, precision, and charm.

I found Rather’s comments that evening so insightful and energizing, I wanted to share a few of his thoughts in hopes that those who share my regard for his career know that his voice is still resonating, and those who are unfamiliar with him might choose to discover the depth of his observations.

“News is what powerful people don’t want you to know,” he offered with certainty. He defined the job of journalism as getting the story that others may be hiding, and that is why journalists are often unpopular with people in high places. This has always been the job as he sees it, finding out what the public needs to know no matter who doesn’t want the public to know it. Mistakes will be made along the way, and he as much as anyone knows there is a severe price to reporting news imperfectly let alone incorrectly, but if a reporter on the beat does not understand that uncovering the hidden story through research is what matters, then that journalist is not much of a journalist.

To that end and in answer to several questions about our current President, Rather observed that Donald Trump is a fearful man. The awkward speech patterns and erratic management behavior of Trump suggest a man who is “very afraid of something.” As a journalist, Rather sees in Trump’s tone glaring similarities to other political leaders who have attempted to cover their tracks, and in so doing he believes this fear will only become heightened as the investigations around him intensify.

In response to broad attempts to discredit the media with sweeping labels of “fake news,” Rather acknowledged that the news landscape today is cluttered with an enormous number of competitive brands, but that to lump them together as equal in diligence or relevance makes little sense. He reminded us that without journalism a democracy will perish, and that widely dismissing media with the catch-all critique of irresponsibility was the most dangerous conclusion we could reach. We have choices in media, and we need to make those as individuals in evaluating standards of discipline. This is a significantly more cluttered playing field than it was in the days of the “Big Three” television networks, but the rules of fact-supported journalism haven’t changed and the idea of uniformly devaluing reporters is a tactic of tyranny.

Rather spent a lot of time talking about the frightening path of authoritarianism fueling the emotion of extreme nationalism, with that being a step toward self-asserted nativism and ultimately devolving into tribalism. He believes in patriotism and has served as a U.S. Marine (an admittedly short tenure), but he is deeply concerned that if we let rhetoric drive our culture to tribal conflict, our nation’s model experiment in democracy will be no more.

In that same concern of internal conflict, he worries that our nation has yet to come to terms with sufficient advances in race relations. He sees the ongoing suppression of minority voting as pernicious and systemically in need of our attention. This struggle dates back to our founding and seems likely to remain unresolved until the final page of our history is written.

Rather worries that our population doesn’t understand how close we are to the brink of war with North Korea, a human tragedy we will regret if we don’t navigate it properly. He sees China as the key to containing North Korea, because China largely controls the supply lines there. The emphasis of our negotiations is better served with China so that China has enhanced motivation to ease tensions with North Korea. We shouldn’t fool ourselves otherwise.

With regard to national priorities, Rather believes that “the three foremost issues in our agenda need to be education, education, and education.” There is no doubt in his mind that education is the core of an informed constituency, and without it democracy will collapse. Likewise he reminded us that “dissent is American” and to think otherwise is to misunderstand the foundations of our nation. Our nation was founded on dissent, and it is always our right to dissent. He chooses to stand for our national anthem, but he appreciates that other forms of peaceful expression remain valid and core to our principles of free speech.

In closing, Rather spoke eloquently of avoiding the trap of cynicism. He believes in skepticism, both as a reporter and consumer of news, but he emphasized that no good can come of cynicism. There is no value in the snide dismissal of hope. I was particularly heartened to hear him end by encouraging us to hold onto our idealism. To hear a career journalist who has stood in the trenches of war and seen close-up every form of violence our world has suffered end on a note of idealism reminded me why I loved his newscast. This was a journalist who at the height of his fame signed off at night with a single word: “Courage.”

Dan Rather is a reporter still on the job, a journalist forever unafraid to do the job that has been his life’s work. Courage and idealism have never mattered more in our world. He might not want to be called an elder statesman, but I know one when I see one.