“I think that what Howard’s writing about is extremely important,” says John S. Reed, the former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange and former chairman and CEO of Citigroup. “There is an appetite in the business community for his views on leadership, but there is a bit of resistance to the ethical considerations. There shouldn’t be.”
And Bo Ekman, a longtime Volvo executive and now chairman of the Stockholm-based consulting firm Tällberg Advisors, says he finds Gardner’s work particularly timely in light of today’s seemingly intractable global challenges. “We are facing the most horrendous problem of humanity and ecology in the warming of the planet, and we need the best humanistic minds and systems thinkers and designers to develop a civilized process,” he says.
Gardner himself, at age 63, is interested in influencing younger businesspeople, those who will determine the ethical impact of the corporations they manage as they move through their careers. That won’t necessarily be easy; he is not on the faculty of the Harvard Business School and has never taught a course there. He is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and he is best known as the creator of the controversial theory of multiple intelligences: a repudiation of the belief that human intelligence can be summed up by purely linguistic and
analytical measures like the intelligence quotient (IQ) or the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
His reputation as a business author is based on his studies of the relationship between cognitive development and leadership ability, and the roots of the ability to influence others. His 2006 book on the nature of influence, which, like most of his books, is titled with a pun on “minds,” is called Changing Minds (HarperCollins). Despite the following he has among many educators, the GoodWork Project, and his concept of the ethical mind in particular, represents the only deliberate effort he has made to influence a field. It was motivated in part by his own recent and painful experiences as a kind of whistleblower at Harvard — he was a participant in the ouster of former president Lawrence H. Summers — in which his own ethical mind battled with his personal friendships, and from which he came away with a deepened sense of the resonance between broader accountability and leadership. Self-centered minds will never make effective leaders, Gardner concluded, and he decided he had a responsibility to make that case as compellingly as possible.
“In my previous work,” Gardner says, “I never spent any time proselytizing. But with Good Work, my inclination is to be much more activist and to convince people in business that we have a real problem. I sometimes say to businesspeople, ‘The reason you won’t [pay attention to this idea] is the reason you should.’”
Ethics is a luxury, says one of Gardner’s classroom students — a woman in her mid-20s. Businesspeople, who must do whatever they can for money, can’t afford it. “Isn’t ethics reserved for people in prestigious professions, like the journalists and geneticists you studied?”
Gardner isn’t buying it. “Getting good service at a hotel isn’t quite the equivalent of surgery at the Mayo Clinic, but I think it’s selling people short to claim that good work is associated only with a high-status job,” he says. He goes on to say that people are not machines, and thus many find ways to bring an ethical awareness or personal engagement to jobs that others would consider rote or even demeaning.
That is one of the core messages Gardner tries to get across in the GoodWork seminar he teaches. On an afternoon in September 2006, the dozen students squeezed into tiny desks in a School of Education classroom near Harvard Square are a mix of Ph.D. candidates and veteran teachers taking a year or two off to earn their master’s degrees before returning to public school classrooms.