“And so shines a good deed in a weary world…”

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory


“We live in a world where finding fault in others seems to be the favorite blood sport. It has long been the basis of political campaign strategy. It is the theme of much television programming across the world. It sells newspapers. Whenever we meet anyone, our first, almost unconscious reaction may be to look for imperfections.”

Henry B. Eyring


What is good in business? This question is gaining importance as discussions increase about businesses focusing on more than profits or shareholders. To be clear. Business has always invested lots of oxygen on the “how” <servant leadership, customer-centric, experience economy, etc.>, but all of those ‘hows’ were simply attempts in making profit better, i.e., ‘good’ was attached to the ‘how’. Anyway. There are a lot of good conversations on creating “good” organizations for the future of business. I, personally, center all my conversations on two foundational thoughts:

      • Business is in, and of, society
      • The purpose of business is to benefit people

Both of these typically get some head nods until you actually hunker down and talk about what it actually means. Most people, people I respect, talk about “things” (it’s always easier to have a ‘thing’ and focus in it) rather than the grander narrative arc of business.

What do I mean by ‘things’? Purpose, culture, community, psychological safety, autonomy, molecules/organisms, teal (or any color you want), ‘shared values’, trust, transparency, digital transformation, authentic leadership, etc. Things that I would argue, despite their improvement consequences on how business is typically done today, are doomed for failure (or certainly not optimized) because the grander system mindset remains the same. Yeah. I do believe the institutions have crafted a cage from which they can make an employee feel like they are free, or freer, but only have made the cage a bit more accommodating to those seeking to fly. But. Going back to respected minds and ‘things’, it doesn’t mean they don’t attach their “thing” to something like a ‘learning organization’ its just that there is a sense that if this individual company, or institution, did ‘this’ that progress will be made. And they may be right – incrementally. I believe the larger discussion needs to be had not over ‘things’, but the business context narrative – its role in society, zero sum, benefits to people. Things like that.

So. My two “things.”

  • Suggesting that a business is in, and of, society is acceptance that there are no moral, ethical, integrity lines between the workplace, the kitchen table, the PTA meeting, the community center and how people interact within and without work, and the business of doing business. This doesn’t mean a business is sacrificing anything. It can pursue profits, sales, productivity, all the business objectives which insure the survival of the business. but it pursues while understanding that “how you play the game matters.”
  • Suggesting the purpose of business is to benefit people. This has nothing to do with Purpose (with a capital P) and everything to do with, well, benefiting people. I often suggest: the purpose of business is to create, and offer, value without extracting, or exploiting, things that are valued. Therefore, value is collectively created. Ponder that a bit. Things that are valued include the environment, earth itself, as well as people’s dignity, sense of mattering and truth. You don’t exploit people or ‘extract’ their productivity nor exploit them, you create value through collective creation – with no, or little, expense to that which is needed to create it. regardless. This idea is an old idea. It is at the core of most business thinking from the beginning of the industrial age. Create things that people need and will benefit from. So what is old should be new again.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that to totally embrace both of these thoughts you almost have to believe the business world, and world in general, is not a zero-sum game. That’s an additional thought to ponder.


there’s never a single reason for anything a human does.


In and of society.

In and of society. To me an individual of business is also of the community and society just as an individual in business is also in the community and society. An individual fulfilled at work is more likely to offer something fulfilling to the community and society. Order begets order and just begets justness and good begets good. By shaping a fairer, more creative and more productive business, one begets a fairer, more creative and more productive society.

“Business is, and should be considered, truly a social agency.”

Mary Parker Follett

A business person should think of their work as one of the necessary functions of society, aware that other people are also performing necessary functions, and that all together these make a sound, healthy, useful community and society. I would argue it not only makes business more interesting, but a job more interesting if one acknowledges it contributes to the culture of the world it interacts with.

A business should think of their work, and their business, as one of the necessary functions of society, aware that other businesses are also performing necessary functions, and that all together they make a sound, healthy, useful community and society.

A business in and of society almost demands the convergence, and connection, between individual meaning, business vision, community health and engagement with the greater society (world).

If a business does not, they will act upon opportunities solely in a self-interest way, in other words, kind of what most businesses do today. It is a zero sum attitude in which survival demands the death of someone else (or their sales). So to be a better business ultimately, any business needs to recognize, and acknowledge, it is dependent upon maximizing human potential which also is a reflection, and recognition, that work, what one does to earn a living, is inextricably linked to being in, and of, society — structured in a better way to get the best out of people & resources as well as be a better citizen within the society in which it exists. 

“A person is a point in the social process rather than a unit in that process. A person is at the same time a social factor and a social product.”

Mary Parker Follett

Purpose of business is to benefit people.

Benefiting people seems like a simple objective and, yet, business seems to forget it time and time again. We produce products people do not really need and produce them in ways to the detriment of the world people actually count on to keep living. We extract and exploit. Neither are to the real benefit of people. I would argue if every business simply began here this alone would put businesses on the right path to a better business world. But the truth is to really get where business has to go there needs to be some rigor to answering whether a business achieves this objective and some harsh reflection.

Which leads me to my issue with most ‘human-centric’ business discussions. My issue resides in the fact they appear to center on productivity within the 4-wall-construct of a business and not see themselves as any version of a producer of a social product. The truth is productivity is actually contingent upon people within, and with out, the constructs of the physical building. Humans have a symbiotic relationship between the business, society, community and, yes, the environment. It was first Follett who pointed this out and Drucker put a sharper point on that thought by pointing out a business cannot be successful within a sick society.

People, at least in a business, need to be productive, but to find meaning that productivity needs to meet two main objectives:

  • It should tap into one’s potential (unleashing potential rather than extracting skill)
  • It should offer a benefit to someone other than the person doing it.

To be clear. This isn’t about Purpose or some grand vision. This is simpler. This is a simple decision to believe that a business is part of the weave of society, community and the world and that everything the business, and its people, do matters not only to the business but everything & everyone it touches. That running a profitable business is not mutually exclusive from running an equitable business – equitable to people. This is more about shared vision than it is any purpose, cause or social responsibility (although they can be part of it). Far too many businesses are under the illusion that their organization is aligned around not only ‘values’, but some shared objective. Typically, that shared objective is some tangible measured goal and, like a machine (or well trained team), the organization is striving to attain it. That is not vision, that is a warped leadership version of gamification. It is an attempt to even out uneven people. Instead, a business should share a vision, embrace progress and connect all activity with behavior people can be proud of within their home, within their community as well as within their business. In other words, benefit people.


at some point I wish we could just accept that people are an imperfect collection of ideas, attitudes, needs & desires and that coherence in Life is most likely attained not through success, but meaning. And that meaning, and coherence, is actually grounded in some version of doing. Ponder.

Which leads me to what a ‘good’ business is and how to make the business world be better tomorrow than it is today.

We like to think of good as solid, 100% defensible and, maybe most importantly in today’s thought, 100% recognizable. We would be wrong to think that way. Good is often nuanced with some subtle distinctions in practice. Good intentions can be perfect, but doing good is more often than embraced by not 100% good people (imperfect people) and actions are not always 100% right (imperfect implementation).

So where does “good” go?

I will say, pragmatically, business is always better if everyone single person is maximized. Maximized in being the best version of who and what they can be <this is not the misguided ‘bring your whole self to work’ concept>. Therefore. The organization that encourages the ‘least’ to become their the ‘mostest.’ This has always seemed more efficient &effective than top/down or even focusing on having best performers pull ‘up’ an organization. In my terms, this is personal progress. Progress in that a person can honestly say “I am better today than I was yesterday and tomorrow I will be better than today” (time increments are negotiable, but personal progress is meaningful and contributes to a better business).

As for morally, well, top down always believes “good” trickles down to help the most vulnerable. It doesn’t. “Top” inherently knows this because they create sub-programs to fill in the lack of trickle down. and, yet, day after day they do the same thing. Bottom up morality lifts everyone. The least become more & the more become morer & even the most are pushed to become better.

“if the people are engaged and focused on contribution they will be more productive, generate more high quality output, be brand ambassadors, be innovative (yes, they will want to contribute ideas to the business itself), be more effective in their behavior (service, customer interactions, vendor relationships, communications) and, you know what? … you’ll be more profitable too.”

source: Zach Mercurio

Or. As Zach Mercurio shared with me:

It’s actually a basic business principle that’s been dressed up by “thought leaders:” Purpose is contribution, or if you like, “value creation.”  Purposeful organizations and their people focus first on contributing and on creating value. They trust that the effects (results) will follow. As Drucker once said, “Profit is not the purpose of a company. It’s the test of its validity.”  The more valid your contribution, the more results you’ll see.  Every “financial result” is mediated through a human being. Human beings who experience meaningfulness and purpose are far better mediators than those who just “need to get the numbers up!” Frantic leaders (i.e. traditionally-minded business leaders) focus first on producing results, but the problem is you can’t have get an effect without a cause.  You can’t have a result without a contribution.


I will say this entire ‘better business for a better world’ topic is fascinating.

While we credit Millennials for the refinding of our business soul (its partially whatever we call Purpose, but it’s mostly a simple recognition that something is wrong in the way business is being conducted and there has to be a better way) the truth is that this has nothing to do with age or some generational labels. Mary Parker Follet in early 1900’s. Drucker in the 70’s. Toffler in 1985.

They told us the way to do business, but when we chose Friedman (with a good dose of Gordon Gecko) business started down the slippery slope of dollars over contribution and responsibility (not Purpose). The issue now is, as we all know, getting off a slippery slope is hard (you cannot climb back up off it, you need to jump off and restart or get pulled off by a helping hand) so those on it are, well, on it. I find while we suggest it’s a love of the status quo more often than not most business leaders know they are on a slippery slope and can’t get off it.

Yeah. A better way of doing business for a better world is a surprisingly, incredibly simple in concept but a surprisingly, incredidbly difficult, topic to navigate. A business first & foremost needs to be successful to survive and its objective is to do things to survive/thrive. And, yet, the path to do so is actually to NOT think about business, but rather think about people, attitudes and maximizing their potential. There is a delicate balance of two truths – a business needs to be in the business of doing business and people are at their highest engagement when they are doing things not because it is business, but meaningful. Therein lies the paradox. And within that paradox resides the potential for a better business narrative within which we can begin applying all those wonderful “things” I mentioned upfront.

Look. There has to be a better way and we know there is.

“If in a company you change nothing, you are sure to fail. If you change everything you are sure to fail as well. So the art of winning resides in your capacity to draw the fine line between what should be changed and what should not.  Same for a brand.  All brands are in transition.  You can’t build brands by thinking only in a linear way. You have to think of larger futures for them. And to do that, you have to use your imagination. A larger share of the future very seldom comes from an extrapolation of the present. And that is what Disruption is all about. Disruption is about discovering new futures.”

Jean Marie-Dru

Every job shouldn’t be a valuable job, it should be a valued job – valued by the one doing it and by others around. If you find you are valued for what you do, you will inherently begin seeking to be better (and do better) because we know we are contributing. That’s meaning. That’s purpose (with a capital P).

In the end.

I do believe 1000’s of plumbers, nurses, teachers, small business owners could teach us more about meaning in work & Purpose driven behavior and being a better business then any large business leader pontificating on some stage. They could do so because they understanding meaningfulness in what they actually “do” day in and day out. They know they will never be multi millionaires and understand the value in Life is found not in some unattainable mansion but rather the meaningful aspects they integrate into other people’s lives whether it be unplugging drains so the family can get on with being a family, hiring students to work in the restaurant and giving them breaks to study (and still pay them) or the nurse who spends the extra 15 minutes because that one patient’s father called worried.

It’s not profits in $’s, it’s in how the soul profited.

 But for business in general, who starts being good? Who leads being better? In a tragedy of commons zero-sum world no one wants to go first. Which leads me to something I wrote years ago “so shines a good deed in a weary world.” my point was one deed can make a difference.

“We must live in the best way this existence that has been given to us, embracing the flow of events. It is up to us to try in every moment of our life to do our best.”

The Branches of Time

This is where I would suggest ‘business improvers’ (consultants, gurus, futurists, etc) can step in and play a role. The majority of business fixers fall into one of 2 camps:

    1. The “let’s make your business run more efficiently” people. They’ll discuss process, simplification and digital transformation. Yes. They’ll couch efficiency in some nice fluffy narratives, but in the end they are simply suggesting the machine isn’t running as well as it could and needs to be finetuned or rebuilt. They see behavior as the be all end all.
    2. The “people potential” people. They’ll discuss, well, people. How to get people to work better together, how to build an environment in which they are engaged (with caring AND process/tools/digital) and how to foster a healthy culture. They see attitudes as important as behaviors.

I am clearly in the second camp and here is what I know. Ask any business leader and they will:

(a) always believe something in the business could be better, and

(b) always be seeking to make things better.


I do not know one true business leader who is completely satisfied or, on the flip side of the coin, believe their business is maximizing its potential and opportunities so the path to the bigger business narrative shift occurs in reshaping mindsets and attitudes, not specific behaviors or ‘things.’

Remember. Most leaders address a desire to be better transactionally (albeit they may, on occasion, frame it as a ‘structural organizational betterment’), yet, “better”, when one views it from a ‘world’ perspective, demands addressing structural elements. I would suggest younger people feel more strongly about structurally addressing this then older business people who have learned to suffer/live in the business environment and therefore feel more like transactional things are the most pragmatic ways to ‘change it.’

And while I believe most of the business world knows there needs to be a larger narrative change the issue is that the gap between ‘knowing’ and actually ‘doing’ is a real sonuvabitch to cross.

I would suggest the key to crossing this gap is not in the ‘specialists’ or the experts in how things are already being done, the key exists in people who know enough about some specific skill to lay a pragmatic foundation and have the ability to see a new way to build to possibilities. In other words, people with a vision to build a new business model.

I am suggesting a better business creates a better society. People spend a significant part of their lives working and that work establishes, as an adult, how they view how the ‘game of life is played.’ When business is dysfunctional or misaligned from ‘better’ values/ethics/behavior (playing fair, how you treat others, rewarded for good work, appreciated for potential not task achievement, progress over results, etc.) it creates a discord in how one views how community/society SHOULD behave. It creates a sensemaking (what makes sense in the world) dissonance and destroys the commonalities (a word Daniel Schmachtenberger uses) which offer some agreed upon beliefs and behaviors. When sensemaking falls part or becomes blurry choice making often steps on the slippery slope of moral compromise. I bring all of this up because business, like it or not, is often not only the model for how things work, but the glue to societal attitudes.

Yeah. I am suggesting business should assume its responsibility to society. I am not a Millennial and I have ached for changes like this forever. Drucker outlined all of this in New Realities 1990, Ewen in Captains of Consciousness 1976, and the Geckos ignored it and the non Geckos (like me) were not strong enough to fight it. I say that now we fight. And we fight by offering a better business narrative for a better business world for the actual betterment of people. To be clear, we need smart people with smart ‘things’ to improve the way business does the business of doing business, all I am arguing is that we need business to think about the overarching responsibility associated with the business of doing business.


Written by Bruce