These students are deferential to their mentor, who slouches at the front of the room, sipping from a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola that never seems to leave his side. Among his students, colleagues, and friends, Gardner is known for his lack of pretension. His eyes are slightly crossed, his wiry gray hair seems to have rarely met a comb, his suit looks slept in, and he drives a VW Beetle. Fittingly, he lives his own life by the strict ethical precepts he asks others to follow, believing that there are lines that a professional does not cross, no matter how much money can be made. He eschews junkets of all kinds, avoids the corporate lecture circuit, and has never capitalized on the literally thousands of programs and curricular materials sold in the name of multiple intelligences.
“I don’t think [his style] is an affectation,” says Ellen Winner, his wife, a professor of psychology at Boston University and the author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities (Basic Books, 1997). “He hates spending money unnecessarily. If his old high school clothing still fits, why waste the time and money to go shopping? But he’s perfectly happy to pay for expensive theater tickets in London.”
In classrooms, at the lectern during speeches, and in private conversation, Gardner is soft-spoken, earnest, and responsive. He shuns hyperbole, glib jokes, and gratuitous theatrics; instead, he listens closely to challenges — indeed, he seems to invite them — and draws on a sweeping range of knowledge about the arts and sciences to respond. (Among the subjects he has written about are the Holocaust, Mozart, and Darwin.) He is also famously impatient, and can come across as aloof and arrogant in some settings just as readily as he can be witty and engaging in others.
The question lingers, considered but not definitively answered, throughout the classroom discussion: Why should business aspire to anything more than maximizing shareholder returns? It isn’t until after class, in a one-on-one conversation, that Gardner elaborates his own answer. The very survival of business may depend on a more widespread benefit. Just as the church of latter-day Europe lost its influence when the mass of society began to doubt its relevance, so too could corporate enterprises be rejected by the body politic — consumers, employees, and even shareholders — if they fail to generate wealth for more than a privileged few. If given a choice, he believes, knowledge workers will flock to companies that embrace high standards of excellence and that allow them to feel engaged with society, leaving other firms with the less talented, less motivated members of the workforce.
Many of today’s young entrepreneurs feel a calling no less intense than that of journalists or geneticists, Gardner says. They also know that a company culture of ethics, engagement, and excellence is more likely to nurture the innovation that markets reward. Thus, the companies that win in the marketplace will be those that enable good work: work that is well executed, contributes to society, and is personally enjoyable to perform. For when ethics atrophy, so does the ability to execute and lead. And when ethics are well developed, people have an inner gyroscope they can rely on for guidance as they confront the complexities of the business environment.
In making this case, Gardner fits comfortably within a long line of corporate humanists dating back to Mary Parker Follett in the 1920s. In more recent decades, chief executives like Max De Pree of Herman Miller, Anita Roddick of The Body Shop, and Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia have run highly successful companies with processes and practices that follow ethical precepts. Google has professed even loftier values, making its informal motto, “Don’t be evil,” a pillar of its espoused corporate identity. But Gardner goes further still. To him, most business is as inherently corrupt as his students say it is; the drive for competitive advantage and wealth, he argues, has taken business’s attention away from the almost chivalric honor of the professional doctor or lawyer. To be sure, doctors and lawyers don’t always live up to their codes of ethics. But the codes exist, forcing practitioners to confront their everyday ethical dilemmas consciously. This kind of thinking, over time, builds not just individual cognitive capacity for leaders, but also the collective ability of organizations to operate in a more complex world and satisfy the real needs of larger groups of people.