Monday, March 1, 2010

Good business: Some companies actually do the right thing

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi looks at a more caring form of entrepreneurship

Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning
Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Penguin. 244 pages.


The dichotomy is real.

On one hand, business has gotten lean and mean: costs cut, suppliers squeezed, employees seen as mere commodities.

On the other, people demand increased accountability, greater choices, less artifice, more humanity

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor, author and business consultant, examines these conflicts and contradictions in this interesting and easily digested volume. He explores these issues and the back story of how we got where we are and what it portends..

He writes: "For the past century or so, business leaders have made credible claims to the effect that allowing for the operation of a free market, unfettered by social and political regulations, would improve the quality of life for everyone. As a result, our mental model of how the world works has become one in which production and consumption, the twin poles of economics, are the benchmarks of prosperity and well-being.

"Any fraction of a percent drop in consumption becomes a flag of distress that sends investors scurrying for shelter. After the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, one of the most often-heard responses from political and business leaders was: `Go out, and buy. Don't let the enemy threaten your way of life.'

"While this worldview offers an easy solution and is convenient for those who benefit from it at the higher levels of the supply hierarchy, is a way of life that has consumption as its highest aim really that rewarding?

"Yet, however dispiriting the historical record may seem to be, human nature is not, in fact, based on greed alone. In every historical period, there have been individuals who care for more than their own profit, who find fulfillment in dedicating themselves to the advancement of the common good. The struggle between selfishness and altruism has run throughout history like periods of sunlight and shade on a summer afternoon.''

Csikszentmihalyi looks at several companies that have embraced more humanistic and less mercenary paths — without sacrificing profitability.

Patagonia, the maker of rugged apparel, began as an extension of founder Yvon Chouinard's love of the outdoors and mountain climbing. He developed equipment for himself that caught on among fellow climbers, and the company took off.

But then, upon realizing that his innovative gear was responsible for increasing the scarring and pitting of his beloved mountains, he developed new techniques and equipment that left the land unharmed.

The company evolved into a manufacturer of outdoor clothing, and Chouinard's high standards required his clothing to be the best and toughest available. But when he realized that the cotton used in its manufacture was grown with the aid of petroleum-based pesticides that left polluted pools in the cotton fields, he spearheaded the use of organically raised fibers.

The tale of Patagonia and Chouinard is one of several used by Csikszentmihalyi to illustrate ''flow,'' defined in this case as the natural integration of sound business practices with intelligent, sensitive and sensible behavior.

He also uses the term to define the state of being wherein one almost loses oneself in the act of doing something.

Depending on individual values and experiences, each reader will come away with something a little different from this book, underscoring the author's notion of society.

Originally published in The Miami Herald

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