There really is only one rule that matters. We could pretty much eliminate all our laws, end regulations, rules and every constraint on human behavior if we would all just do one thing. It’s a simple rule. It’s not hard to understand or even comply with. But… we don’t. At least not often. As a result we have oceans of unnecessary suffering, millions of premature deaths, and a world where we are often on guard, suspicious and disappointed. One area of life where this rule is broken most often is in business.
In fact, leaders who break it are often rewarded with massive amounts of money and even get their smiling faces on important magazine covers. This rule is almost never discussed in our business schools. In fact, the opposite is enthroned semester after semester. Let me end the suspense.
The simple rule is the Golden Rule. You know… treat others as you would like to be treated. That’s it. Now, consider its impact. If we lived and led by this rule, what would be different? Everything. This is not just a Christian rule. It’s the essence of morality expressed at the core of the 17 largest religions in the world.
The Golden Rule is the opposite of the “I don’t give a damn about anyone else” business model. It seems we’ve all been misled about what capitalism philosopher Adam Smith was saying about the power of self-interest. He never proposed that if everyone acted selfishly the balance of our competing interests would create a world of abundance. His view on creating the best society required all people, especially business leaders, to be driven by something he called “moral sympathy” (we might call it moral empathy.)
He wrote that all people have the ability to imagine how our decisions affect the lives of others. Indeed, he wrote that the single human endowment of moral sympathy was essential to the growth of capitalism. Otherwise it would degrade into the exploitation of the poor by the powerful. What Smith realized was that to create a free and abundant society, self-control was essential. Otherwise, laws and regulations would be corrupted to benefit the few to exploit the many.
Ironically, this imbalance of wealth and power would cause economies to slow because average people wouldn’t earn wages, save capital and invest in new enterprises or buy the products they were producing. What some scholars have observed is an “invisible hand” that creates economic growth, the invisible power of moral sympathy — the Golden Rule. But this idea was lost when economists hijacked capitalism and legitimized naked self-interest and created an “invisible hammer.” This hammer allows us to sleep at night while factories in faraway countries burn up a thousand garment workers at a time.
Consider this: would you want your daughter to work in these unsafe, unsanitary sweat shops? Would you want your young children to be growing up in a hyper-polluted Chinese city so their lungs were literally gray instead of a healthy pink? Well, if we don’t want our children to suffer, why are we so willing to simply shrug off this merry-go-round of global exploitation? I know some “John Galt” types say that poor country workers earn more in these inhumane factories than the grinding poverty of their rural farms. This, they claim, is the price of progress.
They claim that these harsh conditions are simply a path to middle class and must be paid by generations. I wonder. What if we live in a breakthrough age of disruptive innovation where we can actually create a market-based economic system that enables tens of millions to leap-frog out of suffering in one leap? What if global companies invested half of their two trillion dollars of stagnant cash locked away in their treasuries on educating the poor labor force to be more self-reliant and more capable of adding value?
What if we co-created inexpensive, sustainable, clean, and safe factories where production waste was minimized and speed came through process innovation instead of forcing people to row harder? What if enough leaders decided to use their ingenuity and capital to create a more revolutionary business model where the value added at each step in the supply chain added value to both the work force as well as to the product?
Such innovative courage is not far-fetched. Henry Ford ignored his contemporary industrialists by insisting on hiring and training thousands of African Americans to build the highest technological product of the age. Then in one leap he raised the average wage from $1.50 to $5.00 a day so that workers could buy the product they were building.
At the time The Wall Street Journal complained that Ford was applying biblical principles where they didn’t belong — whatever. Isn’t it time for another courageous I’m-not-going-to-stand-for-this anymore leadership moment? What if we imagined that our daughters and granddaughters worked in the factories that made our clothes, shoes, and phones? What might we do? That’s the question we need to ask.