Wizards, Muggle Crust and the Human Purpose of Business

In our lifetimes the purpose of business is being reformed. The idea that this was, exclusively, to make shareholders wealthier is dying (slowly). In relation to the climate emergency, boardrooms have the language (eg net zero) but need more action. But on the human and social side purpose of business our language is lacking (argues Douglas Board). After Grenfell and similar events we react with outrage: but what can guide us beforehand, capturing the positives of commerce as well as its problems?

A thinker and writer on leadership and a coach, in yesterday's HeartEdge workshop Wizards, Muggle Crust and the Human Purpose of Business Douglas (@BoardWryter) drew on his book ‘Elites: can you rise to the top without losing your soul?’ to propose that the human purpose of business is to create places (organisations, systems, communities) of extraordinary achievement in which ordinary lives matter. 

He then discussed that proposal with his guests: Jo Hill, a career regulator; Monisha Shah, Committee on Standards in Public Life; Professor David Grayson CBE, an international thought leader and campaigner on responsible business; and Revd Dr Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. View their conversation at https://www.facebook.com/506026059544325/videos/2750438071885864

Douglas shared the following in introducing his proposal:

I want in fifteen minutes to say something about my new book, ‘Elites: can you rise to the top without losing your soul?’, and based on it to propose a new idea about the human purpose of business.

Then each of my guests will take five minutes to put forward their view. We’ll develop that subject in a conversation first among the panel, and then with Jonathan putting points from you. So please use the chat for your views and questions, which are most welcome. Many of you are leaders and innovative thinkers in your own right, in Canada, America, South Africa and Europe.

In 1915 William Ely Hill drew a famous cartoon which, depending how you look at it, shows a young woman with a party hat looking away, or an older woman in a shawl looking down. You can find it by Googling ‘ambiguous image’.

It’s a bit magic, isn’t it? At one moment, it’s obvious that the figure is in her early 20s. Suddenly, it’s obvious that she’s in her 80s. Yet nothing has changed: the black marks haven’t moved. Of course, like every human magic trick, there is no magic involved at all once we grasp the explanation. And that’s why in my book ‘Elites’, I use the term wizards for those with the topmost positions of power and prestige in any given activity  ̶  be it running a company or your local golf club. There is no magic at all in the explanation I give  ̶   in fact I draw on sociological research from a small English town in the 1950s with no power or prestige in sight.  But what needs explaining is quite a trick: why (so I claim) all of us end up giving elites more respect than they deserve, at the expense of our own happiness and sense of choice in our lives.

My story particularly affects a group of hidden heroes whom I have had the deep privilege of coming to understand, through being a coach. This is the group of non-wizards – muggles, therefore – who do really serious managerial, leadership and professional jobs in the dangerous borderlands of wizard territory. They deal with wizards every day; they see them close up; they try to make wizards’ plans work; often they succeed; but they don’t get offered a place at the top table; and often they burn out. It’s the burning out which makes me call this group the muggle crust. If you are one, ahead of anyone else I wrote ‘Elites’ for you.  

So much for wizards and the muggle crust. Now let me ask: so is Elites about highly paid suits? Let me borrow Hill’s cartoon again. Yes it is; and no it isn’t. Part one of the book is called ‘The senior executive’s survival guide’. But part two of the book is called ‘Big questions’. The biggest question I ask is, why does the wizard/muggle pattern (which, by the way, is also called the glass ceiling) exist? And, partly through the intervention of some women construction workers in Mumbai who fifteen years ago knocked me off my well-paid headhunter perch to go exploring; and partly through a brilliant doctoral programme at the University of Hertfordshire; I find the answer to be that the secret of elites is very ordinary, and involves us all.

Let’s look at the black dots of our working lives again. There is more to see than we realised. On the cover of ‘Elites’ is a pint of milk, with a layer of cream which has risen to the top. To take from just some of the emails people have generously taken the trouble to send me in the past month  ̶  stand-up comics, musicians, priests and estate agents – it’s a book about more than highly paid suits.

Here’s ‘Elites’ answer to the big questions: we need to reframe our understanding of how the ordinary and the extraordinary in human affairs relate to each other. In organisational and societal terms, the ordinariness of our extraordinary achievers, and the extraordinariness of our so-called ordinary achievers, needs to be held much closer together and in interdependent balance. It is that insight which I want to apply to the human purpose of business.

We are only slowly emerging from the era in which the purpose of business was, to the exclusion of all else, making shareholders as rich as possible. Maximising shareholder value was not a voluntary religion. Executives who tried to do anything else  ̶  who resisted, for example, saddling their businesses with as much debt as possible, so that shareholders could put as little as possible down while still enjoying all the profits  ̶  were letting society down. And via the capital markets, those wrong-thinking executives would find themselves out of a job, their business bought from under them.

The only businesses which survived with a different purpose were those with strong intent and protected from a stock market coup: such as the John Lewis Partnership, whose business purpose was and is the happiness of its partners. This week, we could also talk about the ownership of football clubs.

This era of, let me call it The Capitalist Inquisition, was neither a law of the universe nor an accident. In his critical history of American business schools, Professor Rakesh Khurana at Harvard has laid out how at the beginning of the last century, the founders of business schools thought they were laying the foundations for a new profession – business administration – modelled on medicine and the law. Professions can go wrong but in concept they are concerned with contributing to individual and social good. But after the Second World War, an idolisation of science to the exclusion of other kinds of human reasoning, backed by conscious ideological endowment strategies adopted by wealthy foundations, brought us The Capitalist Inquisition.

Now think again about Boris Johnson’s remark of one month ago, when he said ‘Greed, my friends’ was the secret of the UK’s relative vaccine success. He wants us to believe that business must, and should, function as uncontrollable natural urge – because then we might think we can do nothing about it. Perhaps he thinks that way about his own sex drive. But in truth he has choices, and so do we. He just doesn’t want us to choose. He wants us roll over and think of England.

What the purpose of business will be in the next couple of decades is down to us; and the question could not be more urgent. Because our time on this planet is short. And because the only thing which produces global change faster than business is a virus.

One alternative view with roots in Marx and in the churches and elsewhere, is that the purpose of business should be to produce good jobs. And with the explosion of low paid, precarious, and gig work, and the relentless disappearance of once-apparently-secure occupations, this must be part of our conversation: certainly at a governmental level setting regulatory frameworks and long-term strategies. But I don’t see more jobs for their own sake – even good jobs – as the purpose of business. A business is not a job factory. Even the John Lewis Partnership doesn’t have the goal of employing as many partners as possible.

A competing view is that businesses exist to create customer delight. Customer delight deserves constant business attention, but I don’t find the idea workable as the purpose of business with a capital P. What about needs which customers don’t know they have today, but (thanks to business innovation) may be happy delightedly to crave tomorrow? Does it matter whether that new need is the ability to walk everywhere listening to your own music, or to play a new kind of gambling game?

Or, take Facebook. Believe me, it creates customer delight. Who are its customers? Not you and I, we’re its exploitable resources. Facebook’s customers are the advertisers who pay for its services, include many corporations and Vladimir Putin. Is a grinning Putin the purpose of business?

Prompted by the reframing of the ordinary and the extraordinary proposed by ‘Elites’, I wonder whether the human purpose of business might be to create places (for which also read organisations, systems and communities) of extraordinary achievement in which ordinary lives matter.

‘Lives’ includes everyone affected by the business. It includes pensioners waiting for dividend cheques, apprentices looking to develop skills as well as the eight year old cycling along a pavement next to an idling car engine.

‘Extraordinary’ welcomes ambition, aspiration and innovation, and the many other ingredients needed for outstanding achievement. It recognises business as a vital source of value and creativity, as well as a source of problems.

The phrase ‘ordinary lives matter’* automatically takes us away from rules and codes towards conversations which change over time and which are not limited to the expert and the powerful. Ordinary lives only matter if they are part of the conversation.

Those conversations won’t start with a blank screen. If pay, working conditions or health and safety are exploitative, ordinary lives don’t matter. If employees, customers and users with no special clout aren’t listened to when they raise serious concerns, ordinary lives don’t matter. If when things go seriously wrong investigations are brushed aside, ordinary lives don’t matter. But the bar is set higher than that.

Many businesses will say, ‘ordinary lives matter’ because we constantly celebrate our frontline colleagues: salesperson or customer service assistant of the month, for example. I applaud that; but the bar is higher. Specially recognising colleagues who outperform on your targets or values is bigging yourself up, amplifying how you see the world. Instead, let’s ask a range of your senior leaders: when was the last time that you changed your mind, or learned something unexpected, from a conversation with an ordinary colleague, an ordinary customer or a meeting with a small-scale stakeholder group? That could be evidence of ordinary lives mattering.

And when in the future we ask, should robots be allowed to do X?, why not start by reflecting, would this enable extraordinary achievement in a way in which ordinary human lives matter?

May the human purpose of business be, to create places (organisations, systems, communities) of extraordinary achievement in which ordinary lives matter? This formula is not the sole answer to a giant question. But it could be a useful contribution to discussion.

Before I turn over to my guests, one last word from my faith perspective, which is Christian. The Bible reveals God as a Creator whose business appears to be creating a universe  ̶  our universe  ̶  as a place of extraordinary possibility and achievement; in which, so God insists, ordinary lives matter. So our business could be God’s business.


* Stephen Lawrence Day (which Theresa May announced at St Martin-in-the-Fields, I believe) – is the genesis of the phrase ‘ordinary lives matter’ and how it came to me via George Floyd’s killing www.tinyurl.com/ordinarylivesmatter goes to the piece I wrote on this for a diversity website.


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Date published

23rd April 2021

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