Skip to content

Why Purpose Matters

2022 January 16
by Greg Satell

When the Business Roundtable issued a statement in 2019 that discarded the old notion that the sole purpose of a business is to provide value to shareholders, many were dismayed. Some thought it was just another example of misguided altruism by “elites.” Others saw it as a cynical and disingenuous ploy.

Yet the primacy of shareholder value is hardly a well-established economic principle. The concept does not appear even once in Adam Smith’s seminal treatise, The Wealth of Nations. In fact, it is a relatively recent idea and when the economist Milton Friedman first proposed it in 1970, it was considered radical, even subversive, certainly not to be taken as gospel.

It has also been tremendously unsuccessful. Since Friedman’s essay we have become less productive, not more. One reason for the poor results is that Friedman and others like him failed to recognize that our economy is made up of people, not inanimate pieces of data that make up economic charts, and these people search for meaning and purpose in their lives.

Failed Cartesians

Often regarded as the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes was obsessed with human fallibility. Cursed with imperfect senses and emotions that can warp logic, he sought to build a new intellectual foundation based on cool, rational thought. “I think, therefore I am,” he wrote, proving that at least one thing could be known without referring to the use of the senses.

Descartes’ ideas led to the Rationalist school of philosophy as others tried to build on his work. The idea that, through pure reason, we could see truths with greater clarity held enormous attraction for intellectual giants such as Gottfried Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza. Unfortunately, other than in the field of mathematics, little was achieved.

That didn’t stop others from trying though. In the early 20th century, the Vienna Circle arose in response to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and others in order to create a logical system to guide human affairs. Wittgenstein himself would later disown it and Gödel’s incompleteness theorems would eventually expose the whole exercise as a failure.

Undeterred by centuries of failure, business consultants have tried to sell the same idea to executives. Yet despite fancy names like scientific management, financial engineering and six sigma, these didn’t fare any better. One study found that of 58 large companies that announced Six Sigma programs, 91 percent trailed the S&P 500 in stock performance.

Still, many remain undeterred. The idea of an infallible technocracy is just too tempting for many to resist.

The End Of History And The Washington Consensus

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History to great acclaim. The Cold War had ended and capitalism was triumphant. Communism was shown to be a corrupt system bereft of any real legitimacy. It seemed that, as many philosophers had predicted, we had reached an end point in which human sociocultural evolution was complete.

A new ideology took hold, often referred to as the “Washington Consensus,” that preached fiscal discipline, free trade, privatization and deregulation. The world was going to be remade in capitalism’s image. Countries that hit hard times would be offered aid from multilateral institutions like the IMF and the World Bank in return for favored policy reforms.

Many pointed out that international bureaucrats were mandating policies for developing nations that citizens in their own countries would never accept. Strict austerity programs led to human costs that were both significant and real. In a sense, the Soviet error was being repeated. Ideology was being put before people.

Yet Fukuyama’s message had been misunderstood. His book was not meant as a prophecy, but as a warning. He pointed to the ancient Greek concept of thymos, a spirited blend of dignity and pride, to caution against rationalist explanations for human behavior. Given a choice between a well trod path and one less certain, he predicted that many will “set their eyes on a new and more distant journey.”

The Silicon Valley Myth

I was working on Wall Street in 1995 when the Netscape IPO hit like a bombshell. It was the first big Internet stock and, although originally priced at $14 per share, it opened at double that amount and quickly zoomed to $75. By the end of the day, it had settled back at $58.25 and, just like that, a tiny company with no profits was worth $2.9 billion.

It seemed crazy, but economists soon explained that certain conditions, such as negligible marginal costs and network effects, would lead to “winner take all markets” and increasing returns to investment. Venture capitalists who bet on this logic would, in many cases, become rich beyond their wildest dreams.

The conditions for increasing returns, however, only apply to a narrow swath of businesses, mostly limited to software and electronic gadgets. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs and their investors became convinced that they could apply the Silicon Valley model anywhere, leading to high profile failures like WeWork and Theranos.

That’s the Silicon Valley myth, that the rational logic of code can be applied to any problem. It’s the same fantasy that has been repeated throughout history, handed from Cartesians to logical positivists to “scientific” managers and now to the software engineers, puffed up with stock options who can’t seem to understand why everyone else doesn’t “get it.”

The costs have been substantial. Evidence suggests that the billions wantonly plowed into massive failures are crowding out real businesses. Productivity has been depressed for half a century. The Facebook papers revealed a culture that has lost its way, so single-mindedly focused on optimizing engagement it lost sight of the humanity it was supposed to engage.

Identity, Dignity And Purpose

If you believe in a rational Cartesian universe, a business is little more than a set of transactions. The nature of the firm, in this view, is simply to minimize transaction costs and skilled managers should focus on maximizing bargaining power among stakeholders in order to build a sustainable competitive advantage. Yet the world doesn’t actually work that way.

Consider the ultimatum game. One player is given a dollar and needs to propose how to split it with another player. If it is accepted, both players get the agreed upon shares. If it is not accepted, neither player gets anything. If the world was completely rational, the second player would accept even a single penny. After all, a penny is better than nothing.

Yet decades of experiments across different cultures show that most people do not accept a penny. In fact, offers of less than 30 cents are routinely rejected as unfair. It offends people’s dignity and sense of self. For many of the same reasons, there is increasing evidence that financial targets don’t motivate employees. No one wants to be a cog in someone else’s wheel.

That is the value of purpose. It bolsters, rather than undermines, our identity. When people feel that they are part of a common project, they feel a sense of ownership, that they are ends in themselves rather than means to an end. It uplifts, rather than demeans, us. It fortifies, rather than undermines, our spirit.

What separates great leaders from mediocre managers is that the leaders do more than calculate, they provide meaning to an endeavor that makes it more than merely a common enterprise. It becomes a collective mission.

– Greg



Image: Unsplash

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS