Charles Spinosa, Ph.D., on the role of the Chief Philosophy Officer – an excerpt from the conversation
Sören E. Schuster: The Chief Philosophy would therefore open another access to what is going on in the everyday world for a company. One might actually assume that in business people know their own world very well?
Charles Spinosa: First of all, I don’t think people know their businesses well. They think that they create and sell goods and services. I don’t believe businesses do that primarily. I believe they’re in the business of creating good lives for customers, managers, workers, owners, and to a lesser extent others in their communities. You never just sell a simple good or commodity. Or if you do, you have degraded your business and the noble labor that goes into your extracting or making the product. Managers and leaders do know better. They know that they are selling something that makes someone’s life better. They frequently use the product or service to make their own lives better. They know that when they advertise the product or service, the ad at least hints about how the product or service leads to a good life. It seems bad manners to go beyond hinting. It’s stepping on the toes of saints, artists, poets, philosophers, and philanthropists. Unfortunately, that is how people in business are educated and how the Chief Philosophy Officer would intervene.
Most marketing is done on the back of social science, not on the backs of people who studied literature or philosophy and see good lives as a goal. And social science studies our animal lives, in particular, our herd animal lives. Most marketing is aimed at helping you fit into the herd better. That’s what we need to avoid. Philosophers can help managers see what is distinctive about their sense of the right way to treat customers, employees, and so forth and then how to build on that to provide goods and services that enable people to live distinctive lives. The same good or service serves multiple distinctively different lives. Look at the different reviews of opinion leaders who review products and services. A big part of consulting is listening to the philosophical traditions that your customers are coming out of and then designing products that meet that.
So, the social sciences perspective would reduce business to herd lives, while the actual world of business is richer than that?
Yes. Another way to approach it is this: Most CEOs and most senior leaders in business believe that they’re doing, or they should be doing one of two things. They are either doing what the owners desire, which is mostly creating profits. Or they are taking care of a collection of stakeholders, which includes customers, employees, political groups, and communities. It’s so seductive, even Jeff Bezos has signed up to taking care of stakeholders. It is crazy. If you read Jeff Bezos’ annual reports, every single one of them will say: “We are customer-obsessed, there is only one stakeholder we care for. It is the customer. I want you to wake up terrified every morning that a customer is thinking of leaving us!” And here he is signing the statement that he’s a juggler who takes care of lots of different stakeholders. Equally unbelievable are those who sign up to the proposition, “I’m taking care of profits for my owners.” What does the philosopher see? Well, what I see, what I’m currently writing about, is senior managers are doing neither, at least doing neither when they’re at their best. When they’re explaining themselves to other people, they choose one of those two options. What they’re actually trying to do is create a masterpiece, an organization and business proposition that expresses their views of what is right for customers and others. They are seeking to create a masterpiece admired by many stakeholders (though not all). They are not serving; they are creating.
That’s an interesting thought. I don’t think I ever heard the term “masterpiece” in connection to a company’s perspective. Could you further describe what you mean by that and what senior managers try to create?
They’re trying to create an admirable organization, one that’s admired by customers, one that they admire. Such distinctive masterpieces are often admired by their employees and by suppliers and communities. But these masterpiece creating leaders need only be admired by sufficient numbers and segments to keep the business going and going in its distinctive form. Consider the distinctiveness of Apple, Amazon, Google, and Netflix. When people look at many Fortune 500 companies, they have a hard time seeing more than profit-making machines. Jim Collins likes talking about them as having flywheels. But about 50% of businesses are small businesses. And all you have to do is walk down the street and look at the small businesses in your town. You’ll see that the proprietors of those small businesses and even franchisees are using their own judgment about what a cool business is. You see the imagination of the proprietor in the design of the story, its array of products, the way the staff treats you. You notice the difference between this shop and that. You notice too there are a number that behave bureaucratically. It turns out that a lot of people think bureaucracy is really cool. So they have bureaucrats, bureaucratic managers. A lot of people think consensus is really cool. And so they manage like that. But they’re doing it because they’re trying to turn their organization into their own masterpiece. This is the big, new thing I’m writing about. The book is in production with the MIT Press. I’ve written it with Matt Hancocks and Hari Tsoukas. The tentative title is Leadership as Masterpiece Creation: What Leaders can Learn from the Humanities.
For me, the future of business is in seeking to liberate managers so they can see that they’re creating masterpieces. What do CEOs and other business leaders say to me now? “Is that what I’m doing? Wow! I could never tell this to my Board of Directors. I don’t know if I could tell it to my spouse.”
The future of business consists organizations that are like one palace after another after another in Venice. Each is distinctive. Each is admirable. They come in different sizes. Some you wish to admire from afar. Some you wish to embrace and inhabit. In this future, businesses that are not admirable fail. No matter how agile and powerful they are as machines, they fail. That is what would happen if your brought more philosophers into business as advisors. Instead of super-companies that are trying to be efficient and agile, and only care about efficiency and agility, now we’re going to have distinctive companies that take care of customers in distinctive ways. They even believe that there are different right ways to take care of customers. They compete on different senses of moral rightness to help people build good lives. If that sounds like what different Greek and Italian Renaissance city-states did, you would be right. If it sounds like what different nation states and ideologies claim to do today, you would be right. Let’s have such different masterpieces in the commercial world where we can discover what we think is right for our own good lives.
And how would the Chief Philosophy Officer come into play in this future of business?
I think the Chief Philosophy Officer can work with senior management to help the senior management do what they’re really trying to do, which is create a masterpiece. Right now, there’s not a lot of thinking about how to create a masterpiece. There’s a lot of thinking about making the business more profitable. There is thinking about how a leader can become an agile enough juggler to take care of competing constituencies. I think that’s a mistake. I think managers are trying to create masterpieces. As philosophers, we need to help them do that.
What stands in the way? Every once in a while, a great, creative thought hypnotizes us, and it lasts for generations. Max Weber told us that organizations tended toward bureaucratic rationality and that such rationality would box out charisma. His thought was so hypnotically compelling that it made itself right. Managers learned to make decisions on rational terms, valuing efficiency and agility above beauty, and above good lives. Charisma remained for sales and for managing the media. But Weber’s iron cage of rationality has held sway. We might think this the engineering mind set. Turn away. Look at the engineering and artistic beauty of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The rational Roman engineers were devoted to beauty. They very likely were devoted to Epicurus. That is a different rationality that we cannot see in our entranced state. The Chief Philosophy Officer will awaken us from the Weberian hypnosis. She will let us – like Wittgenstein’s flies – out of the bottle.