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Let me end with two reminders from history, from Adam Smith the Scottish moral philosopher turned economist. Most business people will know of his theory of the invisible hand which legitimizes self-interest. They do not realise that Adam Smith assumed that his readers would also know about his earlier book, the Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he argued that what he called ‘sympathy’ was essential to bond a society together. We need both – self-interest and sympathy, in business and society.. Bill Gates has recently echoed Adam Smith, saying that the two drivers of human action were self-interest and a care for others. Corporations should take note.
Adam Smith also said this ‘A profitable speculation is presented as a public good because growth will stimulate demand, and everywhere diffuse comfort and improvement. No patriot or man of feeling could therefore oppose it. But the nature of this growth, in opposition, for example, to older ideas such as cultivation, is that it is at once undirected and infinitely self-generating in the endless demand for all the useless things in the world.’
Adam Smith, would, I think, despair of the way in which the creativity and energies of our businesses today are so often directed to such trivial ends. Can we insert a touch more cultivation into our corporate charters along with more sympathy? It is, in the end, up to us.
Charles Handy’s books on the changing shape of work, life and organizations have sold millions around the world. He has been an oil executive, an economist, a professor at the London Business School, the Warden of St. George’s House, and the Chairman of the Royal Society of Arts. His latest book, Myself and Other More Important Matters, is a reflection on what he has learnt from life.