Issue 3.10 | August 2012
In this Article: how we define success will define how we get success.
by Jonathan Wilson
Through the lush hills of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, a road winds past quiet fields and woods and descends gently into the pretty town of Richmond. Replete with an Anglican church at its heart, Richmond is an African echo of the quintessential English country village. There was a time, however, when, beneath its pastoral exterior, Richmond was something altogether darker. In the months that followed my first lazy-summer’s-day visit to Richmond in early 1998, my life and that of my colleagues’ was marked by a constant and taxing navigation of political intrigue, secret meetings with skittish warlords and their heavily armed henchmen, and the intense pressure of peace negotiations in which the trigger is a finger away. Soon after we began our initiative, one of the politicians with whom we worked, Percy Thompson, was dragged out from under a pool table in a pub and executed. His killers randomly selected eight other patrons and, using high-powered assault rifles, shot each one in the head. A few of the onlookers were children of the victims.
Many had a stake in the maelstrom of tribal-infused political violence that wracked Richmond and the surrounding townships in those years. For, to all concerned, Richmond was a prize to be won.
What kind of prize, exactly, was Richmond? To the various political parties and other stakeholders in the mix, Richmond represented just one thing: power. If they won the conflict, they had power. But power over what, exactly?
As we struggled through the process of facilitating dialogue between men bent on one another’s elimination, we sought to bring that question to the fore: once a particular party gained hegemony in the region, what lay beyond? The splendid victor would stand astride, not a mountain of spoils, but a pile of ash: a community paralyzed by fear, ravaged and traumatized by violence, divided along politically manipulated tribal lines and stricken by unemployment (for, of course, commerce was at a standstill).
Missing the Point About Victory
Although the tide is changing, we in business still tend to set for ourselves a vision of success that similarly misses the point. In a landmark New York Times article published in 1970, Milton Friedman said that the social responsibility of the corporation is to make profits. Having taken that as a fundamental law of reality – on a par with the rules that govern physics – we have made winning the money game our one and only moral obligation. As a result, corporations breathe the supposedly pure air of pragmatism from which moral consideration has been filtered as if it were a pollutant.
As I have written elsewhere (here and here), such self-serving thinking leads to pursuits, products and services that are, at best, superficial in value and, at worst, destroy value. Some of the most financially successful companies, however, such as Apple, have long shown a disdain for profits-first thinking, recognizing instead that profits are merely a measure of value created and the efficiency with which it was created.
This evidently increasing shift in defining corporate success may not be sufficient. For, in time, you and I will not be remembered only for whatever value we created for our customers. We will be remembered for our whole legacy.
En-Route to Victory: Collateral Damage
On the island of Bangka, Indonesia, ramshackle, badly managed and often dangerous mines provide about 30% of the world’s tin, and supply close to 100% of the tin used by the Chinese manufacturers who make components for LG, Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, and Apple. The tin is often used for solder-points, of which there are about 7000 in the iPad. According to the BusinessWeek exposé from which I am drawing this information, “mining has wrecked the landscape” of Bangka and the dredging for tin off its shores is doing the same to its reefs. On average, a miner dies every week because of shoddy mining practises, while local fishermen are steadily losing their livelihoods.
Your and my iPad, therefore, is a lot more expensive than we may at first have thought. Apple is not directly responsible for the conditions in Bangka, but they do enable those conditions to persist (and so do Apple customers, of whom I am one). In a world that has always been interconnected – only now, because of the web and social media, much more obviously so – they, and we, are obliged to think of business success in systemic terms. The ingenuity that marks business at its best has to be brought to bear on all parts of the system in which we participate, and which we enable.
Supply chains are not the only places we exploit in order to be efficient. Too many corporate employees are simply well-paid and well-dressed slaves living a numbing, cubicle-shaped existence that feeds into a grinding engine of wealth generation.
A Bigger Vision of Victory
Is the iPad a success? Yes, but it is a median success. A true measure of Apple’s legacy will not simply be the devices it creates and how clever or beautiful they are, nor will it be the genuine improvement and opportunity they bring to the end user. As long as this remains their only consideration, they risk standing in victory over a pile of ash.
Rather than regulate ourselves out of these dilemmas, as business leaders we need to enlarge our vision of success. For how we define success will define how we get there. We need to see the victory of value creation in comprehensive terms: in terms of the value we have created within the design and delivery system, for the end user, for the end user’s community, and for the investor.
Another soul insight from www.soulsystems.ca.
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Article Photo © Karel Prinsloo/Beeld/Gallo Images. Used by permission.