Hope in a Time of Monsters
“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” This is a quote attributed to Italian writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s. It fits our current context only too well. We are out of road. Everyone seems to feel it, although nobody seems to agree on what to do about it. Complex problem after complex problem — ranging from systemic challenges like racial inequality, climate change, the rise of authoritarianism, and the implications of unprecedented technological advancement to deeply individual issues like gender rights and lifestyle preferences — are manifesting more clearly into our daily lives.
To make matters even more challenging, stark divisions exist on how to address them. We need a new way forward that can integrate the understanding of these challenges and develop healthier and more inclusive approaches to them that are in harmony with, rather than in contrast to, broad human well-being, especially if we are to continue to thrive as a species. Intertwined in this need for a new way forward is a question about the potential of business: is the potential of business simplyto earn profits for shareholders in new and more innovative ways or is there a more enlightened way to look at business, one that is more inclusive, harmonious, meaningful, and transformative for humanity?
The old business logic that took hold last century has focused on profits, and there is a more hopeful one emerging that is struggling to be born. Humanistic leadership is a part of that new way. Academic Katrin Muff in her 2013 paper for the Journal of Management Development describes how learning and development institutions, like business schools and in-house training programs, can help coax this new way into existence. She says “Rather than training managers for organizations that operate within twentieth-century logic, management educators need to answer the call to service to become custodians of society” (p. 502). Indeed, more leaders with a broad sense of our challenges and a deeply held and widely applicable ethos focused on environmental and human well-being need to be in influential positions within public, private, and non-profit organizations if we are to bring into existence a new and better world. This is where humanistic leadership comes in. A key attribute of humanistic leaders is the ability to work constructively with complexity and the unknown to create and preserve human dignity and well-being.
The Dying Old Logic and an Emerging One
After the Cold War, the US military described the knotty landscape in which we find ourselves as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous or VUCA. The model of business that took hold in the 20th century has failed repeatedly to cope with the challenges of this VUCA world, allowing irresponsible leaders to rise to the top of the rigid hierarchical structures it favors, according to Michael Pirson in his 2017 book Humanistic Management, and contributing to political polarization, corporate ethics scandals, environmental degradation, and rising inequality. This profit-focused approach is known as economism, and the essence of it is described by economist Milton Friedman who said: “There is one and only social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits as long as it stays in the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” Pirson further clarifies Friedman’s point an exposes the limits of our current system, saying “Any further commitment to societal causes is incompatible with utility maximization at the individual and organizational levels” (p. 103). In other words, economism sees no role for business in addressing the challenges it has helped to create. This narrow, short-sighted view makes it no longer a viable option for a world that is under increasing strain from a growing population and corresponding economic activity.
Humanistic leadership stands in stark contrast to economism, providing a more inclusive, responsible, flexible, and inspiring approach that makes it better able to cope with the challenges of a VUCA world. Humanistic leadership encourages business leaders to act as “agents of world benefit,” according to academics Thomas Maak and Nikola Pless in their 2009 paper for the Journal of Business Ethics. This means because of their power, influence, and ability to affect the world, both positively and negatively, business leaders are responsible for addressing public problems. Leveraging an open and inclusive mindset, humanistic leaders take into account community and environmental issues and develop business strategies that increase human well-being along with company profits; as a corollary, humanistic leaders can see that profits and the well-being of people and the planet are not mutually exclusive. When strategies fail, such leaders claim responsibility and find new solutions rather than allow communities and governments to cope with the ill effects their business activity helped to create.
Although it requires great changes, this concept is a simple one. Backpackers engage in this kind of strategy all the time. We pack out what we pack in, and we try leave the areas we visit a little better than how we found them. Why should businesses, which have much bigger footprints, be held to more lax standards? Some of the answers to this question lie in our time of monsters. The ability of our communities and environment to absorb the negative outputs of economism is fading rapidly, and we do not yet have sufficient numbers of humanistic leaders in our world to see this truth and design a better way forward.
A Reason To Hope and Take Action
This in-between time is a reason for optimism, although it is not easy to see through the swirling clouds of our VUCA world. We have yet to create our new normal. As generations decline and rise, we have an opportunity to create something better rather than try to turn back in search of better days. In our future posts, we will examine how humanistic leadership, which seeks to put human dignity and well-being at the center of what leaders and organizations do, can increase intrinsic motivation, deepen meaning, and address some of our world’s most pressing problems while increasing prosperity broadly and inclusively.
Written by: Jason Smith.
This article has emerged out of the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate leadership. For more information, please refer to https://www.humanizinginitiative.com
Maak, T., & Pless, N. M. (2009). Business leaders as citizen of the world. Advancing humanism on a global scale. Journal of Business Ethics, 88(3), 537–550.
Muff, K. (2013). Developing globally responsible leaders in business schools. Journal of Management Development, 32(5), 487–507.
Pirson, M. (2017). Humanistic management: Protecting dignity and promoting well-being. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. [Chapter 2, 3, & 4]