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If Aristotle Ran General Motors

Posted: 03/30/09 07:46 PM ET

The news that Rick Wagoner has been forced out of his position as head of General Motors set me reflecting today. A dozen years ago, I wrote a book whose title, "If Aristotle Ran General Motors," used this quintessential American company, along with a paradigmatically great thinker of the ages as emblematic of, respectively, the realm of business and the world of wisdom. I had discovered something surprising about the philosophical foundations necessary for the proper governance of a company, a community, or a country. They have never been needed more than right now.

During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1952, Charles Erwin Wilson, a former president of G.M. and later to be Dwight Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense, made one of the most notorious statements of the twentieth century when he boldly proclaimed, "What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what is good for General Motors is good for the country." Critics at the time purported to be stunned by this pronouncement, and commentators ever since have described it as a shameless expression of the ultimate in corporate hubris. It seemed to indicate a perverse transvaluation of civic values and to reveal the radically bloated self-importance not merely of a single company, but, more broadly, of industry, commerce, and the economic sphere of our national life. But when this audacious statement is understood in the deepest way possible, and in a way not likely intended, it's absolutely right, and it conveys a fundamental insight of the first importance.

There are four basic ideas discovered by the great thinkers of the past that undergird any form of human excellence and flourishing, whether in a company like General Motors, or in the country at large. In our families, friendships, neighborhoods, civic organizations, governmental institutions, and business relationships of all kinds, four profound and yet simple foundations - universally accessible, pervasively applicable, and incredibly effective - alone make possible the achievement and reliable propagation of excellence over the long term. They are: truth, beauty, goodness, and unity. These are the four foundations of greatness in any interpersonal context, and they are ignored at our tremendous peril, and always with predictably disastrous results.

No organization can do well in a sustainable way without an abundance of truth flowing freely throughout it. Great businesses rise or fall on how well they adjust and adapt to the realities in which they exist. Executives need to be like intelligence officers, detectives of information, relentless questioners of the world and their markets. I suspect that unvarnished truth has not been plentifully available throughout the offices of General Motors for many years. Their top people have not felt the urgency of discovering the social, economic, and environmental realities that could alone provide them with the insights needed to succeed.

And what of beauty? When I was a boy, growing up in the 50s and 60s, the arrival of the new cars each year was a matter for widespread admiration and celebration. Each new model that first appeared in the neighborhood would draw a crowd of eager spectators. Excitement was in the air. It seems like ancient history to even mention this. Our domestic car companies have lost a lot by basically ignoring our need for beauty. And there is beauty required in process as well as in results. Empowering employees to create a beautiful solution to a product problem or a client need can invigorate and drive performance. Plato suggested we are best motivated by a vision of The Good, which for him was also, and first, a vision of The Beautiful. If GM is to succeed in the future, they will need to respect and nurture this important foundation of greatness.

Goodness is important in many forms. An automaker should care about its customers, and design cars for us that are good in many ways - safe, reliable, inexpensive to operate, and well designed to meet our needs. These products should also be good for the environment in which they're used. And the treatment of employees at every level, as well as of all customers - both before, during, and after a sale - should be ethical, moral, and surpassingly good beyond the requirements of the law and the standards we tolerate.

Unity is the last and most comprehensive foundation. Truth, beauty, and goodness well deployed create unity. Without their many benefits, people are disconnected and alienated from their work. In a fascinating and troubling book written years ago, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, Ben Hamper told a story of alienation and carelessness among front line workers at a Flint, Michigan General Motors plant that made me reluctant to ever ride again in my father's GMC Suburban. It's precisely a lack of fundamental unity that has caused the management and labor unions at companies like GM to act at cross-purposes, and with self-defeating results, for decades now. Adversarial relationships within companies rarely bring mutual satisfaction and joint success for those enterprises over the long run. The history of conflict between unions and corporations is not one of surpassing grandeur in the results attained, and this is a problem that desperately needs attention.

From the time we wake up in the morning, until the moment we fall asleep at night, we have four dimensions to our experience of the world. We have an intellectual dimension to our experience that needs truth. We have an aesthetic dimension that needs beauty. We have a moral dimension that needs goodness. And we all have a broadly spiritual dimension that craves a sense of harmony, connectedness, or unity. If Aristotle ran General Motors, I believe that he would insist on respecting and nurturing these four vital qualities at every level and in every way. Why should the rest of us ever allow for less in our homes, workplaces, communities, and nation?

When my book was first in print years ago, one of my early audiences for a talk on its content consisted of the top two hundred people at General Motors. I remember that, throughout the room, there were many notes taken on the ideas. I just wish that they had taken the ideas to heart. And if they had taken them to work the next day, we might be seeing something very different now in Detroit.

 
 
 

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