Corporate Leadership with a Global Perspective

John E. Mack, M.D.

It is commonly acknowledged that individuals tend to behave differently in a private or family setting than they do as members of institutions. This split, or fragmentation of self, may be so great that people seem, at times, to live double lives. If, in our inescapable identification with the institutions in which we work, and the inevitable pressures we experience within them, we live in violation of privately held values and ideals, the result may be vague but profound discontent whose source may not be readily identifiable. It is only through overcoming these divisions in the self – through an aligning of our private and collective selves – that genuine satisfaction and well-being may be possible. Much of the interest displayed by contemporary Americans in psychotherapeutic techniques and spiritual paths which stress healing, integration, and wholeness grows out of the distress caused by the fragmentation of the self.

The private corporation is a social institution with unique properties. It is specially suited for the production of goods and the provision of services on a variety of scales, for the creation of employment, and for giving a return to its shareholders. At the same time, the very characteristics which make it so attractive and well suited for these purposes – perpetuity, leadership anonymity, special rights of ownership and limited liability – also seem to encourage the psychological split between private and institutional responsibility. Anonymity, potential institutional permanence, relative immunity from social accountability, and limits on fiscal liability have their psychological counterparts, potentially shielding individual executives and shareholders from personal responsibility for the social consequences of corporate policies and decisions.

Executives often seem to be protected from psychological distress related to this fragmentation of self by their corporate role which encourages them to take a competitive approach to commanding a larger market share, especially in the context of increasing global pressures. Executives may have little time for socially responsible activity unless this is seen as having immediate financial importance for the company. At the same time, more and more members of corporations are becoming aware of the human cost of perpetuating the split between private and institutional values.

The discovery and application of psychological techniques which could reveal and heal this self-fragmentation might have profound implications for the well-being of individuals in their corporate work. These techniques could also facilitate the evolution of corporations themselves in the direction of greater productivity and social value.

It is important to the maintenance of self-worth, both for employers and employees, that members of a company feel they are producing something of value and that they themselves are valued participants in an enterprise which benefits other people. Without these ingredients, workers and managers may experience personal discontents which range from vague job dissatisfaction to personality disturbances accompanied by specific psychiatric symptoms. Social responsibility may ultimately prove to be more consistent with personal self-interest and with productivity (at least in the fullest human sense) than we have previously realized, although not always with the maximization of profit.

Productivity is tied to work satisfaction and a sense of personal wholeness, to a healing of the separation of the private and the corporate self. But work satisfaction itself, in this interdependent world, may require a sense that one is contributing to the well-being of the larger human community, a feeling that “outside” activities conducted through the organization are aligned with inner psychological and spiritual needs and values, so that the private and the collective self are one.

We all can cite examples of corporate leaders who have looked beyond narrow nationalism(s) to a global vision, have moved past the rationalizations of ideology toward the possibility of East-West partnership, or have seen the necessity of deferring immediate financial gain for the deeper rewards of longer term social and community commitment. Yet the pressures on corporate leaders to remain competitive and to produce a maximum return for the companies’ owners are so intense that it may be unrealistic to expect that corporate renewal and community responsibility can develop purely from within the company.

[We must] play a useful role in exploring the divisions between the personal and the corporate self and, ultimately, foster a reconciliation of internal and external, private and public beliefs and values. [We should] explore with business leaders questions of personal integration and the obstacles they confront in trying to reconcile organizational pressures with their commitment to social and community responsibility.

The emphasis in these interviews and meetings would be on understanding and analyzing the assumptive framework that generally governs perception, decision, and action for an individual. It would be especially important to include in these discussions corporate leaders and others who have successfully developed companies which express simultaneously an integration of corporate and private values and a commitment to a secure global community.

  • John E. Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

© 1988 John E. Mack, M.D.
CenterReview, Spring 1988, p. 4
Written with the working title “Reflections on Corporate Responsibility”. The last paragraph above is taken from the draft rather than from the published version.