Be a Black Sheep and Change Business for Good

Chapter 60

The birth of new lambs in my barn, usually in the dead of an Ontario winter, is always a welcome moment. But every once in a while there is the most spectacular of surprises. There is a gene meandering through the rather motley genetic heritage of my flock that causes one of my snow-white sheep, with casual abandon, to throw a black lamb. My vet and I had concluded the gene was both sex-linked and recessive, and so had figured out that the black lambs would always be female. That was until Cacophony (after her bawling entry to the flock a few years ago) proved all my genetic punditry wrong by delivering a male: a beautiful, black, healthy ram. A black sheep it was – who had defied what everyone thought impossible – and he immediately earned a spot as one of the rams who would year after year get his shot to leave his mark on the bloodlines of the flock. We name most members of our flock, and this time I turned, naturally enough, to our third-born, who delights in being rather unconventional, to provide the name for this spirited revolutionary. The name our son picked was Ambrose, after another figure from history who was willing to confront the status quo of the emperor’s rule.

The Roman Empire of the fourth century AD was well past its heyday, not yet in full decline, but certainly long in the tooth and suffering more open resistance. It was during this time that Ambrose (the namesake) lived and worked, most notably as the bishop of Milan. Bishop Ambrose was a creative non-conformist who was not swayed by power, a great thinker, and an influential leader. He left behind a significant catalogue of writings, but it is his legacy describing the virtues of human behavior that is the connection I want to explore today.

It was Ambrose who first gave us the phrase “cardinal virtues”; those attributes of human attitude and practice upon which all other behavior turns. Ambrose was not the first to describe and connect the attributes we call virtues; the Greek philosopher Plato gave us that beginning, but Ambrose did call out four as “cardinal.  “There are, as we know, four cardinal virtues,” Ambrose wrote, (truth be told, what he actually wrote was, “Hic quattour velut virtutes amplexus est cardinales,”), identifying prudence, justice, courage (or fortitude) and temperance. Ambrose’s use of the little Latin word “cardo”, which connotes a turning point or pivot, was a new signal that upon these four virtues all other behavior depends.

The purposeful enterprise is an organization form that must become more and more human. As with us, that journey begins as we are grounded in a compelling purpose that serves another person (or persons) and therefore delivers a social good. As the people of an organization take action to deliver that good to others, the organization should begin to exhibit Ambrose’s cardinal virtues. The idea of “organizational virtues” may seem a bit unrealistic, or, given the way we have designed business to work, simply unnecessary. That is far from the case. After all, since it is widely believed that there is only forward or backward moving, no standing still, it would seem that when it comes to behavior, an organization is either becoming more virtuous or less so [Tweet that!].

The implications of this are not small. Ask yourself which business you would rather buy from or work for: the one that is becoming more prudent, more just, more courageous, and better able to exercise control over excess (temperance)…or the one that is becoming less prudent, less just, less courageous, and less able to exercise control over excess?

In our age, when trust and esteem seem to be granted and revoked in such short order, companies and brands are right to fear the turning of these tides of public sentiment. But I submit that instead of being fearful, companies would be wiser to commit themselves to virtuous behavior. For it is the retreat of virtuous behavior that has given us the rise of the fraud (Lance Armstrong, agencies that rate CDO’s beholden to the banks that own them, or “greenwashing” anyone?) and unleashed this present turbulence of public opinion (the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that general population’s trust for business has taken a 5 point jump to reach a post-2007 high of… 53%).  Purposeful enterprises can pull us out of this rut. But organizations will either embrace or reject virtuous behavior through the everyday actions of its individuals—executive and summer intern alike—and not through governance mechanisms.

While these cardinal virtues, these ancient truths concerning the human condition, may be challenged by modern psychology as a foundation for understanding human behavior, they provide a helpful lens through which we might explore how each of us, (black sheep or not) as participants in the life of business organizations can in various ways contribute through our choices and actions. My aim is not to turn us all into detached philosophers, but rather to use this lens of virtue to help us unlock human attitude and action in ways that will bring the purposeful enterprise to life.

Prudence is the chief cardinal virtue, and it is practical wisdom about what needs to be done that will contribute to human flourishing. Prudence is not an abstract notion of reflection, it is a thoughtful and compelling foundation for action. Prudence rocks… it rocks the boat of inertia and gets things moving in a wise direction.

We all think we know what justice looks like and much is made in remarkable recoveries through “truth and reconciliation” after the horrendous pasts of South Africa, Rwanda, and even my own home, Canada. But what of the tireless efforts of a CEO of a food company whose products become tainted, which led to illness and worse, and who now as leader is searching diligently to not only rebuild systems and trust but to become an exemplar to others? Injustice is the default. It takes work to restore what is too easily broken.

Courage, or fortitude, arises inevitably from that personal change of heart and mind, what I have called metanoia: that is, the mandatory foundation of any meaningful organization transformation. Courage that moves an organization forward is not simply the stoic endurance of resistance but the purposeful embrace of a telos, a worthy end. Courage without telos is mere authenticity, yet courage in a cause bestows integrity.

Temperance, while highly unpopular against a post-modern bias for self-indulgence, is what provides sound guidance in the matter of “more” and “enough”. Where is temperance when the gap between the highest paid and lowest paid employees widens further? Where is temperance when the efforts of creativity are seduced by the promise of yet more fame to deliver fraud rather than reality? Businesses can so easily be held hostage to the infinite demands of “more” when their long-term prospects would have been better served to yield to the wisdom of “enough,” as I observed at Kodak years ago.

So, allow me to invite you on a journey of exploration, to be a black sheep standing out against the drab conventions of the way we’ve always done business, and to confront the status quo with Ambrose.

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