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Eye of the Needle

It is clear from endless survey data-not to mention last November’s mid-term election results-that most Americans are decisively turning away …

It is clear from endless survey data-not to mention last November’s mid-term election results-that most Americans are decisively turning away from what liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. calls “affirmative government.” In one recent poll, for example, 54 percent of the respondents declared that “social and economic problems that face America are mainly the result of a decline in moral values.” The poll did not probe the causes of this disintegration, but it is evident that festering dissatisfaction with public education, crime, and the skyrocketing number of illegitimate births-to cite but a few disquieting trends-has contributed to public perceptions.

The crisis troubles CEOs personally. But perhaps just as important, it is a formidable challenge for business. One reason: People who do not share a common set of moral truths will make very different kinds of employees and managers than those who do. Some CEOs see the crisis as part of a protracted cultural conflict. In a quest for personal liberation, “rights,” and recognition, those espousing the new culture deride the bourgeois beliefs that traditionally have supported people climbing the economic ladder hard work, sobriety, thrift, deferral of gratification, and other values that somehow seem quaint in the 1990s.

One might think such hard-bitten, take-no-prisoners types as GE’s Jack Welch or Roy Vagelos, former CEO of Merck, would chortle over such “soft” issues. Not so. A few years ago, when both were speaking at Columbia Business School, the session’s host, a professor posed the following question to assembled students: If you were running a business for a larger company and were told by a prospective customer that you could book a $50 million order for your company, provided you agreed to deposit $1 million in a Swiss bank account to an agent, would you do it? When nearly half the class raised their hands in assent, Welch was astonished, and he launched into a 10-minute rebuke. Vagelos also voiced concern, maintaining that a values crisis “is one of the great dilemmas business faces today.”

On April 4, in partnership with W.R. Grace, CE will host an unusual roundtable: “Have We Lost Our Moral Compass?” Grace CEO J.P. Bolduc will join American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Novak and former Notre Dame President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh to tackle this concern and to discuss what business leaders must do if they wish to make a difference.

Our roundtable report on this issue will appear in CE’s July/August edition, along with our annual cover story on your Chief Executive of the Year. In addition, our fax poll on this month’s “Short Takes” page probes some of the same moral issues.

Stay tuned.

About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.