Last January, a group of leading management thinkers gathered in Switzerland to “see what can be done to . . . energize organizations in ways that make them better for the organizations themselves, better for the people doing the work, better for those for whom the work is being done and better for society as a whole.”
Next April, a group called Conscious Capitalism expects to draw some 1,500 people to San Francisco to explore how companies can “adopt a higher purpose that transcends profit maximization.”
And in between, hundreds will convene in Vienna on November 15 and 16 for the fourth Global Peter Drucker Forum, which will examine how business can become, as Unilever Chief Executive Paul Polman (one of the forum speakers) puts it, “a force for good.”
As I’ve watched these events come together-and heard similar notions about rethinking capitalism from David Cooperrider (Business as an Agent of World Benefit), Michael Porter (Shared Value), Dov Seidman (HOW) and others-I’ve felt buoyed by each of their visions.
And I’m sure that Peter Drucker would have felt good about them, too. He believed, after all, that the best corporations “define an organizational purpose that goes beyond next-quarter financial results and goes beyond maximization of shareholder wealth.”
Still, deep down, I have to admit that I’m struggling to understand the import of it all: Does this flurry of activity add up to more than a bunch of scattered conferences and white papers? Are we actually witnessing the beginnings of a social movement?
On one level, it is tempting to say yes. Indeed, it seems only natural that there would be a vigorous backlash to the myopic, financially focused mindset that triggered the financial crisis and Great Recession.
But there’s another part of me that remains skeptical. How can this disparate array of conferences and articles coalesce into a single force? If this is a genuine movement, where is it’s center? What will spur coordinated, collective action-what de Tocqueville called the “knowledge of how to combine”?
“The unique event of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring . . . changed the attitude of a whole civilization toward the environment,” Drucker noted in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. Where’s our Silent Spring for fixing capitalism?
Social movements build in stages, and it is possible, of course, that we are early in the evolution of-what does one even call it?-the Purpose-Over-Profits Movement.
Yet it is also possible that what so many of us feel passionate about won’t amount to much in the end, that all of our teeth-gnashing over short-term-itis and corporate irresponsibility will prove ineffective, much like the protests against globalization that took place in the late 1990s. “So far, these protests have no focus,” Drucker remarked in Managing in the Next Society. “They are protests against ‘the system,’ whatever that means.”
We should have no illusions that “maximizing shareholder value” itself became a movement-a key part of “the most successful intellectual movement” in law and economics circles in the past 30 years, in the words of Johns Hopkins University’s Steven Teles.
Countering it will take a movement of our own. How-and even if-we successfully nurture one remains to be seen.
Rick Wartzman is the executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University and a columnist for Forbes.com. He is the author of What Would Drucker Do Now? (which is a collection of his columns) and two books of narrative history: Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and (with Mark Arax) The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American History.