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Published: February 28, 2007

 
 

Winning the Devil’s Bargain

Sometimes, leaving the game meant leaving corporate life altogether. “I tried to help the organization see the larger purpose we could serve,” recalled Amrita, the senior VP of innovation and strategic marketing. “But when I began to realize that we weren’t going to change in a sustainable way, I couldn’t stay. I’m not the kind of person who can set limits, or only invest part of myself.” She is now working as a consultant to nonprofit organizations and academic institutions. This strategy proved somewhat successful for Amrita, but it also meant reducing her income. Not everybody I talked to had the financial stability, or the courage, to take that kind of chance.

Playing a Bigger Game. In her book Value Shift: Why Companies Must Merge Social and Financial Imperatives to Achieve Superior Performance (McGraw-Hill, 2002), Lynn Sharp Paine asks us to confront the uncomfortable question, “Although we often say ‘ethics pays,’ what if it didn’t?” Eleven people among those I interviewed seemed to have confronted this tension directly, and resolved that their values came first. They stayed in the corporate world, but jealously guarded their ability to say no when moral issues were at stake. The former CEO of several European consumer brand companies described such hard choices as almost routine. “I have left my role voluntarily as CEO twice for moral reasons. The first time was because the board was trying to force me into a shortsighted and damaging strategy, and the second was because I was personally debilitating the executive team.”

What enabled people to feel independent enough to take these risks? Often it was the choice to limit material wants. As this same CEO put it, “I could be true to myself those two times I needed to quit because we kept our expenses low. Before we even bought a car or a home, we saved a year’s worth of living expenses. What people often don’t realize is that true security lies in healthy family relationships and access to our own psychic resources.” Having this security gave people the freedom to stand up, even at company meetings. “I put my badge on the table at one team meeting,” an HR director told me. “I told them I didn’t want to continue talking the talk if we weren’t going to walk the walk. That really seemed to shift the conversation for the better.”

Less focused on “winning” in traditional terms, those playing a bigger game seem to hold a subtle but unmistakable conviction that what really matters is much larger than business — whether it is human potential, spirituality, society, or the natural environment — but that the corporate world is one of the most effective places from which to change the world at large. “I estimate it will take 150 years to transition to fully sustainable sources of energy. Hopefully, my company will be a significant part of that transition,” says Bill, the CEO of an alternative fuels company. “That is what I work for every day and what I try to get the analysts to see when I give the quarterly earnings reports. But if we fail, that will be progress, too. Someone else will pick up the challenge, and they will be able to learn from what we have accomplished. So, you see, none of this can be meaningless.”

The Personal Deal
I began my interviews wondering if others experienced the moral tensions of corporate life that I sensed. These interviews led me to conclude that it is possible to “make a difference without getting killed.” We do not have to leave the corporate world to keep our integrity or live a life of purpose. 

 
 
 
 
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