Originally published on the Vistage Research Center
In his first TEDx talk on the subject of “Conscience — Connecting to Purpose and Avoiding Evil,” speaker and author Brett Pyle refers to the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In this book, Frankl, a survivor of Nazi death camps Dachau and Auschwitz, famously attempted to answer the question of life’s meaning. Using Frankl’s example, Pyle urges businesses to ask similar questions of their existence and take moral responsibility for the choices they make.
In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, we have Frankl’s legacy to the world! In it, Frankl asserts, “So many people go around asking, ‘What’s the meaning of life? Tell me what this is supposed to be all about and I will gladly organize my life in such a way that I’m sure to give life the meaning it’s supposed to have. Tell me, and I will do it!’”
To this rhetorical question, Frankl responds, “What’s the meaning of life? No! You do not get to ask this question. This is the question life asks you. It demands an answer and each and every day you give one.”
Ultimately, we’re all responsible for answering that question for ourselves. Personally. “What will the meaning of my life be?” Through our choices and decisions, we all answer that question.
I spent most of my career with a major oil company that had outsourced leadership development. One year, my fellow senior managers and I attended an Executive Education program at Cambridge University in England. We were put through a simulated business case study with this scenario:
You are the leadership team of a manufacturing company. It’s your job to run the most successful company you possibly can. We’ll give you data. Process the data. Run the business. Make decisions. Be successful. That’s why we’re paying you.
At the end of the simulation, the facilitators revealed the background of the case study. It was based upon actual companies that, slowly but surely, had ultimately become complicit in the Nazi war machine. To our horror, we discovered that we ourselves, one economic decision at a time, had followed exactly in their footsteps!
If we’d just asked a single conscience-based question, we would have received a description of who we were becoming through our business decisions. But we didn’t ask. Our revenues soared. Our cost of goods sold was low. Our net income was huge. And we’d become Nazis. There wasn’t a dry eye in that room.
We had been given a very specific goal: Run the most successful company you possibly can. But we heard: Run the most profitable company you possibly can. We had absolutely equated high profits with high success on an unqualified basis. The only way you can do that is by leaving your conscience at the door.
WHY DO WE EXIST AS AN ORGANIZATION?
I’m here today to assert that not just individuals, but organizations bear that same moral responsibility to rigorously interrogate the meaning of their existence. Companies, not-for-profits, governments, religious and educational institutions all ultimately come face-to-face with the consequences of their choices. They too must regularly ask themselves these same kinds of questions:
- Why do we exist as an organization?
- What do we stand for?
- What do we refuse to compromise along the way?
- Where are we currently off-track, and need to correct course?
My friends, we live in precarious times. Now, more than ever, we’re aware of this — aren’t we? These are times that require leaders of significance to stand up and engage their organizations in deep conversations to clarify and live out their humanity as a collective.
You don’t have to. You can go on leading your organization, doing business as usual, ignoring these deeper questions. And then, you too, can become complicit in evil, even without intending to do so. How would you live with that reality? How would you die with that on your conscience?
There’s only one way to avoid that pitfall. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident and survivor of the Gulags once said, “It would be so easy if the problem of good and evil could be resolved simply by finding this group of evildoers … rounding them up and doing away with them once and for all.”
“But,” Solzhenitsyn continued, “the problem of good and evil is that the line that divides the two runs right through the center of each human heart.” And, dare I say, each and every organizational soul. How do you navigate waters that treacherous?
Cultivate an intimate, honest, authentic relationship with your conscience. Individually. Collectively. Consult with it regularly. Ensure it is well-calibrated and steering you and the organization you lead, rightly.
And don’t forget the good news that Frankl teaches us: You get to choose the meaning of your life! You get to choose the meaning of your company’s existence!