James O'TooleJan 1, 2024
The Enlightened Capitalists
Cautionary Tales of Business Pioneers Who Tried to Do Well by Doing Good
Is the University of Chicago-blessed, "greed is good" near-term profits approach to business wearing out its welcome?
James O'Toole's The Enlightened Capitalists: Cautionary Tales of Business Pioneers Who Tried to Do Well by Doing Good (HarperBusiness, 2019) is a welcome addition to the current debate about what is the right balance between the near-term profit motive and long-term social goals in running a business.
O'Toole, an emeritus professor of business ethics at USC, argues that entrepreneurs have and can be financially successful and still treat their employees, partners, and customers with respect. He provides two dozen case studies of founders and leaders, ranging from Milton Hershey to Robert Wood Johnson to Herb Kelleher, who tried to do more than just make a quick buck. These pioneers believed that if they practiced a form of ethical capitalism, the profits would roll in. And they did.
The challenge that O'Toole recognizes from the outset is that the culture these founders created rarely survived their own tenures at the top, and that the unrelenting pressure of the market ultimately wears down even the most well-intentioned business leader. In the end, he concludes that large publicly traded corporations face the greatest pressures, while smaller, private or trust-held businesses have an easier time of creating and sustaining a positive culture.
The Enlightened Capitalists is a must read for every aspiring business leader and investor, even those who are convinced that they are on the "right" side of the debate. The judgments can shift rapidly. Even a spectacularly successful New Economy company that had for years as its motto "Don't be evil" (since replaced with "Do the right thing") can quickly end up being vilified in the media and charged by regulators for its monopoly-like behavior. As Kermit might say, it's not easy being good (or green.)
Daniel Peris is Senior Vice President at Federated Investors in Pittsburgh. Trained as a historian of modern Russia, he is the author most recently of Getting Back to Business: Why Modern Portfolio Theory Fails Investors. You can follow him on Twitter@Back2BizBook or at http://www.