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Monday, November 06, 2020

Idealism Is Not a Dirty Word, Even in Business

It sometimes feels as if everyone agrees that we live in a bad, bad world; a place full of strife, aggression, and dishonesty . . . and nothing can be done to change it. From this perspective, business too is a messy, disreputable activity, where dog eats dog, and shoddy compromises and political maneuvering are everywhere. The world of work is a nasty, tough, and brutish place—at least, that is what many people assume—and you’d better accept that. If you cannot, you must step aside and let others take over who are less squeamish and weak. It appears that it is necessary for anyone who wishes to succeed to be hard, aggressive, and free from any unnecessary scruples. Idealism—which fueled Victorian commercial expansionism on both sides of the Atlantic—is totally out of fashion. So is the belief that mankind is ultimately capable of freeing itself from the problems caused by ignorance, greed, poverty, and tyranny.

We do not need to be resigned. If we are powerless as individuals, we remain immensely strong as communities and societies.
I do not believe this viewpoint. This is far from a perfect world, and it does contain much that is wretched and miserable. But why should change be deemed impossible? Human beings have created the societies, cultures, and workplaces we have today. If they do not yet offer a civilized and enjoyable working life to the majority of people, human beings can change them. We do not need to be resigned. If we are powerless as individuals, we remain immensely strong as communities and societies.

Our forefathers defeated monarchs and aristocrats, who were thought almost impregnable at the time. Although today’s massive organizations often seem just as immune to any kind of external control, the largest global corporation is an immensely fragile creation that often relies on bluster and outward appearance to conceal its vulnerability. In democracies especially, the holders of political power are exquisitely sensitive to whatever may cost them votes. They may cosy up to big corporations most of the time; but if that threatens defeat in the next ballot, they will turn on those same corporations and sacrifice them in an instant. As consumers, as customers, as voters, and even as employees, we have the power to change things—if only we care to use it together.

Every day, our world tests our consciences and our commitment to the values we hold dear. Each compromise, each stepping away from what we believe is right, is another small defeat.
Idealism is that inner belief that things can and should be better than they are. It is a strong faith in a vision of a better way to organize ourselves and our world. “Vision” has become a word in almost too much vogue among writers and speakers on leadership. They point to the power that may be released when people share a common vision and purpose. They encourage leaders to become “visionaries.” And yet they miss the essential point. No true visionary has ever been anything but an idealist.

Idealism is what fuels visions. It creates and sustains them. It is our ideals that drive us to turn our values and purposes into shared action, where they might otherwise remain mere words and hopes, without the power to change lives. Every day, our world tests our consciences and our commitment to the values we hold dear. Each compromise, each stepping away from what we believe is right, is another small defeat. In time, such actions produce today’s sense of resignation and belief that our current workplace culture is inevitable. It is not.

Idealism is usually frowned upon in the sphere of business. Idealists, it is believed, are impractical dreamers, often filled with dangerous beliefs: beliefs in changing the status quo and threatening those currently in power; beliefs about the ability of ordinary people to change the world we live in to make it a better place; beliefs in preserving the rights and dignity of all; and in demanding ethical behavior amongst those at the top. Yet it usually takes an idealist to create a new venture, market an innovative product, become an entrepreneur, or change the face of business itself.

Some may, indeed, hold beliefs about the future that conflict with current orthodoxy. If they do, they are in proud company. Nearly every person in the past whose vision and discoveries have changed our world has been attacked as a dangerous idealist and an impractical dreamer. It seems that every innovation must begin its life by fighting against entrenched attitudes and being dismissed as nothing but blue-skies thinking. Name anyone today who has achieved fame by creating a radically new way of doing business, a product line nobody even imagined could exist (and now no one can imagine doing without), or a completely fresh approach to old problems, and you will name a person driven to create by some kind of inward idealism.

Only when enough people regain both the idealism and the courage to speak out— then act on what they believe—will we see any change in the direction of a better world.
It will take courage and determination to build a more civilized way of running our commercial, industrial, and governmental organizations. It will require us to cherish the idealism that faces up to the difficulties of our world, yet remains convinced of our ultimate ability to overcome them. It will also demand a firm commitment to freedom from arbitrary power exercised to benefit a very few, to the detriment of the bulk of people within our organizations and places of work. Yet if we continue to believe that this is a bad and unpleasant world, and there is nothing to be done to change that, everything will remain as it is—or become still worse. If we assume working hours will always get longer, resources continually become scarcer, and the rest of our lives will have to be subordinated to the ever-escalating demands of “the bottom line”, that is how it will be. Only when enough people regain both the idealism and the courage to speak out— then act on what they believe—will we see any change in the direction of a better world.


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