The Executive’s Compass: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: June 23rd, 2011 by bobmorris

The Executive’s Compass: Business and the Good Society
James O’Toole
Oxford University Press (1995)

“The Great Conversation Across the Centuries”

More than 50 years ago, Walter Paepcke founded the Aspen Institute and entrusted to Mortimer Adler the responsibility for devising a program of inquiry that became known as the Executive Seminar. Initially and for several decades to follow, groups of executives would gather together for two weeks under Adler’s leadership to discuss the Great Ideas…what Adler once described as “the great conversation across the centuries.”

Along the way, O’Toole became involved and today conducts Leading Change seminars. (You are urged to read his book which bears that title.) In the Foreword to this book, Lodwrick M. Cook explains O’Toole’s use of the central metaphor: “The beauty of the compass is that it provides a framework for the executive to create order out of the growing chaos of cultural diversity and conflict of values. Like a real compass, [O’Toole’s ‘value compass’] helps us to find where we are, where others are, where we want to go, and how to get there. Like the Aspen experience itself, O’Toole’s compass is aimed at developing executive judgment by expanding our understanding of the interrelationships of fundamental values.” Whose values? They range from those of ancient Greece (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Sophocles) through those of the Enlightenment (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison) and then those more contemporary within intellectual history (Emerson, Thoreau, Marx, Mill, Freud, Hayek, Schumpeter, Friedman, Postman, and Berlin). One way or another, directly or indirectly, each of the Great Ideas can help each of us in our own quest for “the good society.” Hence the importance of the compass. I wish it were possible to recreate it graphically in combination with this brief commentary. It has four points (Liberty, Efficiency, Equality, and Community) and the tensions between and among them create what James MacGregor Burns has described as “the deadlock of democracy.”

As I can personally attest, the Executive Seminar is an exceptionally rigorous intellectual experience. Groups of approximately 20 persons spend a week together, with group discussions led by two carefully selected co-moderators. As O’Toole explains in the Introduction, his intention when writing this book was to assist executives in five roles they play. “One, as managers engaged in making `purely business’ decisions: by recognizing and properly addressing the broad social implications of such decisions, they can bring out more effective organizational performance. Two, as managers whose internal policies turn out to affect outside constituencies. Three, as managers who are participants and partners in government….Four, as citizens who vote and volunteer in political organizations. Finally, five, as individuals who choose to examine their own lives and their own personal legacies to society.” It would be a serious mistake to view Great Ideas as being impractical or somehow irrelevant to everyday human experience. On the contrary, as O’Toole brilliantly explains, they can (indeed should) invest that experience with meaning, direction, and ultimate value.

To whom specifically do I recommend this book? First, to organizational executives who believe in vales-driven leadership and wish to participate in (and be nourished by) what Adler characterizes as “the great conversation across the centuries” with those who generated or refined Great Ideas throughout the past 2,500 years. Second, to those recently embarked on a business career who need a “values compass” as they encounter what O’Toole has described (in Leading Change) as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Finally, to those who wish to gain at least a sense of what the nature of discourse would be, were they to participate in one of the Executive Seminars sponsored by the Aspen Institute.

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