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InReview – Issue 26

Changing Lanes
directed by Roger Michel, produced by Scott Rudin

We all have bad days every now and then, but this movie is about two guys having a really, really bad day. Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson) is a decent, working class guy trying to be a good father while struggling with alcoholism and an anger management problem. Gavin (Ben Affleck) is an (overly-)stereotypical, corrupt lawyer, uncomfortable with his own conscience and the person he is becoming. Their two lives collide in a minor fender-bender setting in motion a series of escalating mutual acts of retaliation and revenge, and forcing them to take a good hard look at the dark side of their own moral behavior.

Changing Lanes is a commentary on the form our moral character takes in times of extreme stress. The movie doesn’t take a middle ground. In such times, one’s true nature comes to the surface. Moral resolve is either strengthened or weakened — and Doyle and Gavin experience both. “How do you live with yourself?” Gavin asks his crooked-to-the-core father-in-law and chief partner in his law firm. “At the end of the day, I think I do more good than harm.” Dissatisfied by this shallow spin on utilitarian ethics, Gavin pursues a deeper answer.

The movie itself poses some soul searching questions: Is moral character a result of principles and beliefs that drive our behavior, or are moral beliefs an afterthought, justified and rationalized through whatever self-gratifying behaviors we choose to pursue? What role do we play in selecting and shaping the communities in which we participate, which in turn reinforce or detract us from our own moral paths? Changing Lanes is definitely worth a drive to your local video store. Just be sure to check your blind spot before making any sudden turns.

Reviewed by Gerard Beenen

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Good Business: Your World Needs You by Steve Hilton and Giles Gibbons; New York and London, Texere LLC, 2002; xvi, 256 pp.

Steve Hilton and Giles Gibbons founded Britain’s first social marketing company Good Business in the UK in 1997. Business books can sound a great deal alike after the first forty or so. This one is very different. It starts with the thesis that social responsibility is good for business — not just to make the company look good, but actually to strengthen its business base. Further, the authors argue that global corporations are the ideal vehicle to carry the socially responsible message around the world.

Today’s headlines are filled with the shortcomings of global corporations. The anti-corporate protesters argue that poverty and wage disparity are increasing, the rich are getting much richer, and corporations are the major factor in these trends. They argue that corporations pillage the earth, destroy cultures, and exploit workers in third world countries.

Rather than duck these concerns as most pro-business books do, the authors first recognize shortcomings of some corporations, challenging them with a business argument to “shape up.” But they also confront the stories and data of the anti-corporate forces, taking another look at the poverty data and drawing very different conclusions. They boldly look at so-called corporate “bad guys” like Nike and Coca Cola and offer another view of their actions. They show by many examples the constructive role that corporations can play in raising health, standards of living, and democracy around the world.

The presentation of the book can be frustrating at times. Almost nothing is done through lists, callouts, subheadings, or graphs to highlight key ideas. It is completely up to the reader to underline or take notes to pull their conclusions. As a British book, with many British business examples and expressions (though with a US dollar bill on the cover), this book demonstrates many differences between British and American English, though in an era of global business this should not put off any serious reader.

I certainly recommend this to anyone who thinks good business and social responsibility are at odds. I would also strongly recommend it to anyone who has read any of the many “anti-business” books on the market today. Whether you buy Hilton and Gibbons’ arguments or not, hearing them at least provides another framework for considering global issues and the role of the corporation.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy by Marjorie Kelly; San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2001; xvii, 231 pp.

Marjorie Kelly is the cofounder (1987) and publisher of Minneapolis-based Business Ethics a national publication on corporate social responsibility. The first half of The Divine Right of Capital discusses six basic assumptions of what she calls “economic aristocracy.” The second half counter-proposes six principles of “economic democracy.” Her basic target is “wealth privilege” which means “serving the wealthy few and disregarding the many” (p. xi). Wealth and economic power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. Kelly argues that while we have progressively moved toward a more inclusive political democracy and away from aristocracy based on wealth, race, or sex, we have never dethroned economic aristocracy and achieved true economic democracy.

Although Kelly provides ample statistics and historical evidence in support of her arguments, this is mainly a book about ideas. She is a brilliant, if controversial, expositor of John Locke, Adam Smith, and other grand theorists whose authority is often invoked by defenders of the “corporate aristocracy.” This is Kelly’s greatest contribution: getting her readers to rethink their assumptions about property, work, wealth, democracy, government, and business organizations like the corporation. Whether you agree with her or not, engaging her arguments is an invigorating and healthy exercise, highly recommended. Let’s think about these assumptions that have such defining force in our lives.

But even if you resonate with her perspective (I confess I find it “spot on”), the question is what to do about it. She provides some interesting ideas but changing a system is a tall order requiring a lot more analysis and strategy than this book can provide. I was sorry to read that she no longer believes, as she once did, that “voluntary change by progressive businesspeople would transform capitalism” (p. xii). Her efforts are invested in intellectual argument and in structural/legal changes. But without a renewal of personal and corporate ethics, of necessity voluntary, people will always game the system, no matter how “democratic” it is on paper. It is a both/and proposition, not an either/or. Ethical renewal and structural reforms.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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On Mission and Leadership: A Leader to Leader Guide edited by Frances Hesselbein and Rob Johnston; San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2002; xii, 145 pp.

On Mission and Leadership brings together, under the auspices of the Peter Drucker Foundation, twelve essays from an impressive group of leaders. The overall message is that “the effective organization is built around mission — the reason for being — and effective leaders mobilize around and communicate mission at all times” (p. x). Warren Bennis’s essay on leadership in a knowledge era and on character is a superb contribution. A great interview with Body Shop founder and progressive business leader Anita Roddick, and chapters from “emotional intelligence” guru Daniel Goleman and consultant Patrick Lencioni, contribute not just variety but insight to the topic.

William Pollard of Service Master and David Lawrence of Kaiser Permanente contribute essays on mission-centered leadership that are worth the price of the book by themselves. I almost called up my nearby Kaiser Clinic to go in for a check-up after reading Lawrence! Dee Hock’s essay on “chaordic” leadership, Henry Mintzberg’s on “managing quietly” in which he deliciously debunks “management by barking around” bluster, and Robert Knowling’s closing chapter on “Why Vision Matters” are each full of wisdom.

For more than four years now, Ethix and the IBTE have been banging the drum for “mission-control ethics.” It is not a new or eccentric message — though it is easily lost, especially when we are facing various crises — that an inspiring, shared mission is not only the starting point but the guiding star throughout the journey of a good business, an appropriate technology, and a sound ethics. One can hardly do better than study this little volume to understand why–and how — this is so.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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The Rocky Mountain Institute

Is sustained economic growth compatible with natural resource conservation? Typically, an ever-expanding, capitalist economy and resource conservation tend to be viewed as mutually exclusive. However, the Snowmass, Colorado, based Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), aims to convince us otherwise. Cofounded in 1982 by husband and wife team L. Hunter and Amory B. Lovins, RMI has grown to a 45-member staff and a $7 million annual budget, supported in large part by consulting projects aimed at helping private sector corporations develop environmentally responsible manufacturing, products and services.

RMI “is an entrepreneurial, nonprofit organization that fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources to create a more secure, prosperous, and life-sustaining world.” (2001-02 Annual Report) That is, RMI believes environmental sustainability should be the driving force of economic growth. This philosophy of “natural capitalism” (cf. www.naturalcapitalism.org) is expressed in four tenets: 1. Radically increase the productivity of resource use; 2. Shift to biologically inspired production (Biomimicry) with closed loops, no waste, and no toxicity; 3. Shift the business model away from the making and selling of “things” to providing the service that the “thing” delivers; 4. Reinvest in natural and human capital

RMI’s Web site is a rich resource with a vast storehouse of virtually fluff-free content. A quick scan of their site map reveals about 500 topic pages, with many of them containing deeper links to more materials and downloadable .pdf files. Though the site lacks visually compelling graphics, navigating through it is easy and reflects RMI’s ethos: logical, straightforward, and without frills. The site has three major areas: 1. Activities and Audiences; 2. Areas of Impact; 3. Resources. Each area has sub-areas with detailed content ranging from environmentally sound real estate development, sustainable manufacturing and transportation, to an “RMI for Kids” section, as well as an extensive list of topic-focused discussion groups.

I’d recommend a visit to www.RMI.org but allow yourself some time to peruse it with a mouse in one hand and a cup (recycled of course) of Java in the other as you’ll find lots of opportunity to dig deep into this resource-rich site.

Reviewed by Gerard Beenen

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