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Mindful ManagersBy Margaret Steen
For hundreds of years, corporate leaders have been judged on their ability to create wealth for their shareholders. But for almost as long, some people have been searching for a different way to do business. This was the subject explored by James O'Toole, recently the first Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business, and now a Senior Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics' Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership.
In a talk entitled "The Mindful Managers: Two Centuries of Courageous and Virtuous Corporate Leadership," O'Toole began by discussing a near-universal pattern among business leaders: focusing on the bottom line for shareholders and worrying about ethics and other stakeholders in retirement, if at all.
For example, Francesco Datini, also called the Merchant of Prato, lived from 1335-1410 and became one of the wealthiest men in Italy. He kept detailed documentation of his business and his life – providing a window into the business practices of the time. Datini's focus on making his fortune seems to have kept him from finding fulfillment in other parts of his life. He wrote, "Destiny has ordained that I should never know a whole happy day." He died a very unhappy individual.
American industrialists John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie devoted their lives to making money; one of Rockefeller's employees warned him that the company was "quoted as the representation of all that is evil." Both Rockefeller and Carnegie spent their senior years atoning for the way in which they had made their fortunes.
"Almost all histories of business have been that way until fairly recently – but there have been exceptions," O'Toole said. "We think problems are modern and no one has ever faced them before. Then we look at history."
Recently, new metrics for business success have been emerging: whether the organization is ethical and whether it is socially and economically sustainable.
History offers numerous examples of leaders whom O'Toole describes as "mindful managers": those who are attentive to all of their responsibilities. Being a mindful manager is not the same as being a philanthropist – these managers were capitalists who created profitable businesses. However, they also had strong ethical compasses, respected others, and wanted to use their organizations to foster human development.
O'Toole offered several examples of these mindful managers:
"None of these companies changed the world," O'Toole said, "but each was able to affect the lives of stakeholders in a positive way."
O'Toole cited several lessons from these examples. The first is that it is difficult to be a mindful manager – and even more difficult to be one consistently. In addition, all the leaders O'Toole cited embraced the notion of stewardship: that running a business was a public trust and that one of an "owner's" duties was to pass on a healthy institution to the next generation.
O'Toole cited several myths about mindful management, including the idea that a company can't "do well" financially and "do good" for the community at the same time. However, he also said it's not true that good deeds automatically lead to better financial results. The key is to have informed leaders who govern based on values that lead to serving all of the stakeholders who have a long-term interest in the well-being of the firm.Margaret Steen is a freelance author.