Did BP lack good values, or did Tony Hayward?

Recently I’ve been reading about corporations and the effect they can have on society. A book called “We First“, by Simon Mainwaring, is a great example – it lauds companies that don’t just make money, but also pursue positive social outcomes. If you haven’t read Simon’s book yet, do it. At least check out his blog.

Outside of “We First”, you’ll find plenty of discussion around corporate social impact. There are “socially responsible companies“, “eco-conscious companies“, “socially conscious businesses“, and of course, the most “sustainable companies“. Whatever that means. Inevitably, writers ask why more companies aren’t acting responsibly: what they should or should not be doing, how they should change, what their values should be, and so on.

However, these discussions are missing the point. Companies can’t and won’t change themselves. But we talk about about ideas like “corporate values”, as if they existed in some independent space. But there really isn’t such thing as corporate values. There are only individual values. We seem to ignore that fact that corporations are made entirely of, and run exclusively by, individuals.

So if we are going to have a discussion about the behavior of corporations, we necessarily have to have a talk about individual values. The effect a corporation has on society is a direct result of the values possessed by the people running that company. In other words, corporate behavior is a reflection of the combined values, influence, and behavior of each individual within. So why don’t we discuss individual values more often? Why don’t we hear about the “500 Most Socially Conscious Managers”, or the “100 Most Responsible Board Members”?

I’ll admit that we do hear a great deal about celebrity individuals – the all-star CEOs, the point guards, the pop music stars, and the politicians. But these don’t count – their celebrity persona may not reflect the real individual, and too much of what we see is filtered by the media.

But it’s still easier for us to praise or vilify the celebrities, because they won’t do the same to us. It’s a one-way communication. We feel free to chastise someone like Tony Hayward, because he’ll never engage in a quid pro quo. So should we turn to criticizing our peers instead? Not if we want to risk destroying our relationships and are willing to open ourselves to the same critique. Are you willing to do this?

So where does this leave us? Who do we turn to if we want to improve ourselves and society? Socrates said, “A self examined life is not worth living”. I’ll extend that further, but saying “A self-examined life is the only way we can hope to have companies that are better stewards of society.” If individuals don’t change, nothing else will. We have to be willing find our faults from within! I know that’s not an easy proposition. But it’s the only way we can really hope for any change, in my view.

If this point resonates with you, I’d recommend checking out Sam Davidson’s blog. He articulates ideas about self-examination far better than I can. In fact, one of his recent articles inspired this post in the first place.

What role do you think individual values play in setting the behavior of corporations?