Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Tightrope between soul and market

Good philosophies can be applied to new categories and industries, to generate new revenue streams that bring disproportionate value

Nowadays, most self-respecting companies have a mission statement. Often, the senior management has spent weeks—partly in a retreat—weighing the wording. Thinking deeply about what we want to be as a company can only be encouraged. But with most mission statements sounding like empty vessels, they may reflect a deep problem within companies.

The mother of the mission statement is of course the manifesto. Originally, manifestos were grand, skilfully written declarations of collective action and their most common producers were political and art movements. The United States Declaration of Independence (1776), The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), The Communist Manifesto (1848) and the Dada Manifesto (1918) are perhaps the most famous.

The great historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012) observed in his book Fractured Times that the reason for reading the best of them is the “wonderful, irresistible style and verve of the text" which grabs you with a “soaring analytical view of world change. […] They always speak in the plural and aim to win supporters (also in the plural)." Great manifestos inspire collective action towards a purpose.

Which is why business became interested in them. Mission statements are MBA-ified versions of the manifesto, and Hobsbawm sums up their flaws in one phrase. “None of the mission statements I have come across says anything worth saying, unless you are a fan of badly written platitudes." One reason for this is that mission statements are short, because they must be communicated. Yet it requires rare genius to capture a company’s soul in only a few words. So what was once conceived as a rousing declamation of collective direction has become a hollow, dutiful service announcement that fits on a screensaver and can echo through the loudspeakers of a corporate canteen.

While sad in itself, the real question is of course whether the definition and dissemination of purpose plays a role in business success, to the point that corporate leaders should care? The answer is a resounding, hell yes! In a six-year study for their book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras found that companies that generate long-lasting above-average economic performance adhere to an ideology that goes beyond the simple pursuit of profits. The superior economic returns of long-lasting companies, the authors found, are the by-product of their striving to fulfil their inner purpose. But how does this work?

Research by BrandFinance and others has shown that the economic value of companies consists increasingly not of tangible but of intangible assets (for instance, culture, competencies, intellectual property, trusted relationships, brands, reputation, etc.). Intangibles represent the true wealth of a company. Yet their invisible, non-physical nature means that accumulating and leveraging them works in different ways than managing plants, buildings, machinery, inventory, land, etc.

Rather than being tangible unconscious entities, intangible assets mostly reside inside human brains. And in a free world, human brains can only be optimally leveraged and aligned through meaning and philosophy. This is where purpose and manifestos come in.

If long-lasting above-average economic performance stems from intangibles that are orchestrated by purpose, then the ability to create and share meaning becomes a defining characteristic of leadership. With the rising need for social responsibility and the policing force of social media, people who can covert philosophy into economic value are the alchemists of our times. The critical point is, that this requires as much MBA skills as it requires affinity with the liberal arts. With poetry, literature, languages, philosophy, history, psychology, art, music, dance, architecture, design, etc. In other words, the creative cultural expressions that make us human. And I believe the separation of the “Humanities" from business by business leaders is why most companies find it so difficult to create sustainable value.

Steve Jobs gave an interview in 1995 after having been thrown out of Apple, in which he spoke about what drove the company. In my view he there summarized the true purpose of Apple in a way that is relevant for all business leaders.

“[Most companies] do not bring much culture to their products. Most products have no spirit to them, they have no spirit of enlightenment about them. And the sad part is that most customers do not have much of that spirit either.

“But the way we are going to ratchet up our species is to take the best [of what humans have created] and to spread that around to everybody. So that everybody grows up with better things and grows up to understand the subtlety of these better things."

The statement reflects a deeply philosophical view, on human emancipation and Apple’s role in it. It embodies a liberal arts view of computer science. Job’s rivalry with IBM and Microsoft was essentially around this point. While he respected Microsoft’s success, he was saddened by—in his words—the fact that they had “absolutely no taste".

Manifestos are statements about the future, which is unknowable. Hence, good philosophies are specific yet flexible. They can be applied to new categories and industries, to generate new revenue streams that bring disproportionate value. In a world of increasing robotification, Apple’s creed can acquire still new relevance for decades to come. If (and only if) Tim Cook and his team truly grasp this, Apple will remain the technology company with the biggest potential by far.

The future belongs to those who can marry a sensibility for the liberal arts with the daily life of business. Their manifestos will, in the words of Hobsbawm, “walk the tightrope between soul and market". This is hard. But there can hardly be a more uplifting view of capitalism, as a system that humanizes us in the process of earning our daily bread.

Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.

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