Books Reviews

Bok Review: If Aristotle Ran General Motors

Tom Morris asks in his book If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soulf of Business what Aristotle would have done to “create lasting excellence and long-term success in the business world” (p.ix)? Tom Morris believes that “there are some basic truths … which undergird any sort of human excellence or flourishing” (p.x). “Regardless of context … the same principles must be used” (p.xi).

Focus on deeply human issues
Tom Morris suggests that “the single most important factor for dealing with all the problems we face … is our ability to look within” (p.xii). He thinks that it’s necessary “to focus on the deeply human issues of happiness, satisfaction, meaning, and fulfillment in the workplace” (p.xiv). We need to “reflect deeply” on some of our “most basic assumptions” (p.6).

Tom Morris has “come to understand more deeply than every before the overall importance of work in our lives, as well as the importance of bringing more of life to work” (p.8). People “will not be able to flourish … in conditions that have not been wisely developed … to what … most fundamentally matters to us all” (p.8). “People do their best when they enjoy what they are doing” (p.12). “Happiness is participation in something that brings fulfilment” (p.16).

Four dimensions of human experience
The “four crucial dimensions of human experience” that structure the book, and all of human life, are (pp.19–20):

  1. “The Intellectual Dimension, which aims at Truth”
  2. “The Aesthetic Dimension, which aims at Beauty”
  3. “The Moral Dimension, which aims at Goodness”
  4. “The Spiritual Dimension, which aims at Unity”

1. Truth
“Truth is the foundation for trust,” and trust is “an absolute necessity for truly effective interpersonal activity” (p.30). “Trust is like a lubricant for human relations” (p.46). Furthermore, “truth must always be handled in such a way as to be consistent with beauty, goodness, and unity” (p.33). “We should all strive to create a context in which people are not afraid to share what may be hard truths” (p.35). “Respecting the truth, caring for it, and nurturing it … is everybody’s job” (p.47). “No firmer foundation for … excellence can be built” according to Tom Morris (p.47).

“What we do … is a consequence of what we think” (p.48). “And how we do … is a result of how we think” (p.48). Deep background assumptions “form the rails along which our trains of thought and action run” (p.49). There may be no better approach to “the most productive sort of empowerment” than “collaborative partnership” (p.64). “Collaborative work requires taking other people’s ideas seriously” (p.65). “Collaboration is founded on truth” (p.65). And launching “collaborative ways of working should itself be done … collaboratively” (p.65).

2. Beauty
Beauty is one of the “aesthetic dimensions of human life” (p.70). “Ugliness is its polar opposite” (p.70). One way to “appreciate the role of beauty in human experience” is to reflect “on its absence” (p.70). Absence of beauty is “a drain on … personal energy, and a threat to motivation and creativity” (p.71). Tom Morris suspects that “we are only beginning to understand and appreciate the significant role” beauty “can play in human flourishing and organizational excellence” (p.78).

“We frequently deal with people on an intellectual level alone” (p.79). We expect people to work with “machinelike regularity and precision”, but they need more than “the bare physical necessities for doing their work” (p.79). There is a kind of beauty in “the act of performance itself” (p.81). “The relevance of this … is direct and extremely important” (p.81). People need “to be artists exercising their creativity in any small or large ways” (p.81). This is related to “some of the deepest issues of human motivation” (p.84).

Tom Morris believes that it’s crucial that “we understand something important about the meaning of life” (p.86). His own conclusion is that: “The meaning of life is—creative love. Loving creativity” (p.94). “Our creative performances are … to be thought of as reflection of the love that brought us into being” (p.95).

The “challenge of change has always been with us” (p.96). When “both employer and employees … share” a foundation of basic values, … then they can move forward together with some measure of confidence despite tremendous change” (p.97). Tom Morris believes that “all the people within a business should be thought of as partners” (p.103).

Ideally, all “within a business” and others “affected by its activities” should “prosper and live better” (p.104). Tom Morris thinks Aristotle would have said: “Always think of yourself as entering with other people into partnerships for living well” (p.104). “This highly general truth” has “deep beauty” which provides a perspective on “specific decisions we face” (p.104).

People in “productive partnership” need “to share purposes which are rooted in their deepest values” (p.105). The shared purposes need to have been arrived at through “mutual exploration and development” (p.105). The partnership has to be “a true collaboration,” where all parties bring “the best of who they are, what they know, and what they can” (p.105). “For all of human history, something like a neighborhood has mattered greatly” (p.108).

3. Goodness
Goodness may be “the most misunderstood of all four basic dimensions of human life” (p.115). “It is also … one of the most unappreciated in business matters” (p.115). It’s undeniable that “one of the most common ways of departing from goodness is departing from truth” (p.117).

Too often people take “a negative and legalistic approach to ethics as … no more than a matter of … compliance” (p.120). There are typically two ways of approaching ethics. “One is to do the right thing” (p.120). The other is “to camouflage” what you do “to make it look as if you’re doing the right thing” (p.120). Ethics is “not just a matter of staying out of trouble or avoiding legal problems,” but involves creating “conditions under which people can be their best and do their best” (p.122).

“Long-term thinking” has in many contexts been replaced “exclusively by short-term thinking” (p.132), where “greed and the lust for power” seem to be driving forces (p.129). In this kind of climate, “the urgent easily pushes out the important” (p.132). Far too often, “human values get subordinated or simply reduced to monetary economic values” (p.133). “In too many businesses the only concern seems to be to make the numbers come out right” (p.133).

A great number of people argue “that for good ethical decisions, we need rules, lots and lots of rules” (p.142). “In this view, goodness is a matter of following the rules” (p.142). In this approach, “the emphasis is on compliance” (p.143). However, “rules almost never help” (p.143). The “bad people will find loopholes and other ways around the rules” (p.143). And the “good people do the right thing anyway” (p.143). “Rules can be very important, but there are things that are even more important” (p.144). In the final analysis, “moral interpretation must come from somewhere beyond the realm of rules” (p.149). Rules must be “rooted in something deeper if they are to bear proper fruit in our lives” (p.150). “Ethics is not algorithmic; it’s never just a matter of calculating from rules” (p.161).

“People can’t be their best or do their best without relying on both the wisdom to see what ought to be done and the virtue required for doing it” (pp.150–151). Tom Morris has come to believe that “a person’s character is his or her settled degree of wisdom and virtue, an established pattern of thought, feeling, and behavior that has arisen out of repeated action and reaction in the world” (p.151). “Integrity does not let you deviate from the wholeness of your values for the sake of temporary gain” (p.152). “It does not allow you to disregard the demands of truth and goodness in deciding what you will do” (p.152).

Tom Morris writes that it “sounds old fashioned … , but only the soil of ethical goodness can nurture the human qualities necessary for people to work together well over the long haul” (p.157). The most important thing Tom Morris has learned from studying ethics is: “Whenever you make a decision, whenever you act, you are never just doing, you are always becoming” (p.164). “Every decision, and every action, has implications not only out there in the world but in our innermost beings” (p.164). “From our most fundamental forms of thinking flow our attitudes, our emotions, our decisions, and our actions” (p.168).

4. Unity
Unity is “the proper culmination of the other three, both undergirding and overarching them” (p.173). “Work can be satisfying and meaningful only if it contributes to meeting our most basic spiritual needs” (p.173). When Tom Morris writes about “the spiritual, the spirit, or spirituality,” he is “not necessarily talking about anything distinctly religious at all” (p.174).

Spirituality is fundamentally “depth and connectedness” (p.174). It is “the depth beneath the surface, the meaning and significance that don’t always meet the eye” (p.177). “At work, it’s the ability to see and do the real job at hand in a way that doesn’t usually show up in the official job description” (p.177). People need “to have this deeper view of their jobs individually as well as of what the organization as a whole is doing in the world” (p.177).

“The ultimate target of the spiritual dimension is unity: connectedness, or intimate integration, between our thoughts and our actions, between our beliefs and emotions, between ourselves and others, between human beings and the rest of nature, between all of nature and nature’s source” (p.179).

“Fragmentation, … and a false sense of autonomy are modern diseases of thought and feeling” (p.180). “What affects one of us affects many of us” (p.180). “We are all interconnected in our past, in our present, and in our future” (p.180). And we are “essentially social beings who depend on community” (p.180). “Everything we do should be thought through in the context of its next larger environment, and that in its next larger environment, and so on” (p.181).

Unity is always “connected with concerns of truth, beauty, and goodness” (p.181). Truth, spoken in love, is “the most resilient and lasting tie for connecting people and organizations” (p.181). “Likewise, beauty is an element of … connectedness” (p.181). “When we connect our work with meanings and purposes … , we find the result to be beautiful” (p.181). “The greatest beauty in human relations comes about through the …  integration of truth and goodness in unity” (p.181).

“We all have a deep need for” uniqueness, union, usefulness, and understanding (p.183). “We all need to feel unique” (p.183). “We contribute best … when we are unafraid of bringing our distinctive perspectives” (p.187). We also have a deep need to feel as if we “belong to something important, something bigger than the individual self” (p.189). We all have a deep need “to feel useful to others, and an equally significant need to understand where we are, where we’re going, and why” (p.200). “We need … some strong sense of direction” (p.206).The “kind of understanding that is … part of the spiritual dimension goes beyond the merely intellectual” (p.211)

“Organizational success and … personal satisfaction require significant doses of truth, beauty, goodness, and unity” (p.212). These four values are the “foundations of sustainable excellence and human flourishing” (p.212). “We have a tendency not to sink our roots deeply enough” (p.212). “We cannot be at our creative and energetic best unless we are planted in rich fertile soil” (p.213).

The book is full of deep timeless wisdom about human life, happiness, and motivation. However, the book also contains misinformation. It’s ironic that the part on truth in the book isn’t entirely truthful. With the benefit of hindsight, at least one of the recognized “masters at company renovation” — who were said to have “a visceral affinity for truth” twenty years ago — didn’t have “the capacity to handle the truth, the ability to get at it, and the skill to use it well” (p.27).

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

2 replies on “Bok Review: If Aristotle Ran General Motors”

Hi Jan,

It’s interesting as Heidegger recognised Artistotle as the first phenomenologist (although I am not so sure it wasn’t Plato myself). Did you get the feeling that Morris was reading Aristotle at this level of depth? I too think we still have a huge amount to learn from the ancient Greek philosophers, but it is insanely demanding to really dig into their experience of reality to fully understand their sense of “being” – of themselves and also of the phenomena they were exploring. This is not a critique of Morris, I think he is spot on in terms of highlighting beauty, truth, goodness and ‘unity’ and Maria and I articulate these in our Holonomic Circle.

No, I didn’t get the feeling that Morris was reading Aristotle at that level of depth. Although Morris frequently draws on the wisdom of Aristotle, he also finds inspiration in the teachings of a wide array of thinkers from many different traditions and eras. However, I don’t remember that he mentions any phenomenologists like Heidegger and Husserl.

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