Gardner achieved a bit of blogosphere notoriety for his criticism of Summers: He found fault not with the substance of the president’s ideas, but with his governing style. In Changing Minds, he analyzed the conflict between Summers and West as one in which Summers was hobbled by his own inability to give up the idea that “as leader of this flagship institution,” he had control over West. “Unless one has dictatorial powers,” wrote Gardner in a letter about Summers published by the Economist in 2005, “one cannot change an institution by fiat, sheer will, or intimidation. And unless Mr. Summers can somehow reinstate collegiality, trust, and a civil tone on campus he will not achieve his goals, many of which have considerable support within the community.” In other words, Gardner saw the core of the problem as Summers’s own personal limitations as an influencer. Summers “didn’t particularly embody [his stories],” Gardner said later, “and they had no resonance with the audiences he was trying to impress. And every time he made a mistake, it was very costly to Harvard.”
To Gardner, such episodes are challenges to the ethical mind, tests of an individual’s ability to navigate ambiguity. Each time you make a decision on behalf of the larger entity’s welfare (such as Harvard or humanity) instead of basing it on personal loyalty or self-interest, you build your own cognitive capacity. In this regard, just as with the moral dilemmas of medicine and law, the decision to support or not to support Summers, for example, is less important than the exercise of the ethical mind that leads to making the decision. Similarly, companies that focus solely on quick profits, Gardner says, deprive their employees of opportunities to think through complex issues, shortchanging their mental growth. Such companies can rarely produce the sustained innovation that comes only from the unfettered minds of an engaged workforce.
Gardner is currently studying trust — looking first at trust among children. “Not only do we feel that wisdom has disappeared from our society, but that young kids don’t trust one another, don’t trust the media, don’t trust anyone, and it’s very hard to have good work when you don’t have trust,” he says. He is also offering a class through the Institute for Global Ethics at Colby College in Waterville, Me., called Meaningful Work, Meaningful Life. “Young people are looking for positions with companies whose values they share,” he says. “But I think it’s way too early to know if there’s a sea change, or even a pond change.”
Will businesses embrace Gardner’s idea of an ethical profession, a calling? They may, although it’s difficult to imagine too many successful executives agreeing that “Once you’ve given the message that everything is about the bottom line, that destroys expansion of the neural networks.” In the end, however, Gardner is right about at least one thing: The most valuable resource that any company has is the minds of the people who work there, and those minds return the most value when they are encouraged to grow in multiple directions, and to interact in unpredictable ways.
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Lawrence M. Fisher (fisher_larry@strategy- business.com), a contributing editor to strategy+business, covered technology for the New York Times for 15 years and has written for dozens of other business publications. He is based in San Francisco.