- ITI Thought Leaders
Teams America, Part III
What ‘Do-Gooder’ Thinking Costs The Good
Paul J. Ungerland II (Business Phenomenologist)
Thus far in this series, my friends/colleagues demonstrated certain virtues of beauty and truth with their specialized perspectives and pens. Perhaps at the risk of being less polished than prior parts of this conversation, I’d submit the core consideration of our dialogue to be something like, “what if the color of one’s preferred political party once again became a taboo workplace and dinner table topic and we shifted from ‘teams’ allegiance to the truth and potency of personal and communal identities?’”
Aiming at this ideal, I’ll now turn to a more modest contemplation of “The Good,” from what could be considered the everyday perspective of our era - business (capitalism, commerce, economy) and its connection/cost to community.
“Can the balance of our care for neighbors and those in need amount to something more significant than a ledger measuring donations or the perceived power accumulated in our coffers?”
This being Part III in our three part series on Beauty, Truth, and Goodness in the 2020s, it seems appropriate to briefly revisit the potent and timely contributions and contemplations of Parts I & II before moving on to my (admittedly more elementary) contribution.
In Part I, Dr. Milliner took us on a road trip through two Americas; a journey which traversed ghost towns of civil discourse rooted in respectful disagreement and ended in more contemporary urban settings of fanaticism and felonious behavior. What was the life lesson of this road trip? Our discourse, mostly disagreement, in modern day America(ns) appears to mirror the destructive dynamics of ancient Rome or Civil War America. Conversations (if such a thing can be said to occur in these moments as opposed to condemnations) are not fueled by ideals such as liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the blessings of property for our posterity. To the contrary, Dr. Milliner’s road trip evidenced the reality that our modern moment is dominated by a new national pastime of overcoming “the other,” as opposed to a collective conversation committed to ensuring freedoms, liberties, and the conditions of happiness can be inherited by others who will be forced to traverse the roads we pave.
Beyond beauty and the absurd ugliness of our moment, Part II offered Dr. McCarthy’s precise insights into the tenuous collective and contemporary relationship to Truth. Dr. McCarthy explored the important historical and philosophical discourse surrounding truth, and suggested a return to authentic compromise as the core of conversation, which is likely the only systematic control (as intended by our Constitution) to prevent total devastation of Democracy. Quite true, and a beautiful retrieval of historical dialogue and hope in our moment.
Has capitalism as a conditioning factor of human consciousness and conversation for more than a century eroded our ability to contemplate the Good apart from prior conversation about ‘doing good?’ Can we contemplate being good apart from prior concerns of how well (‘good’) we (or our corporations) are financially performing? Can the balance of our care for neighbors and those in need amount to something more significant than a ledger measuring donations or the perceived power accumulated in our coffers?
A business associate of mine loves to frequently sling the following colloquialism in professional and personal conversation: “You have to do good before you can be a do-gooder!”
What does this mean, to ‘do good before you can be a do-gooder?’ More importantly, what does such a turn of
phrase cost our culture and identities? After more than a decade of hearing my friend/colleague spin this favorite nugget of sagacious advice in various settings, I believe I’ve collected sufficient context to interpret this odd grammar and extract an interpretation from this idiosyncratic insight. As the great interpretive intellects of prior centuries taught us, setting in life (Sitz em Leben) is significant when it comes to understanding spoken and written words. My colleague had a favorite setting for invoking this meandering maxim - specifically board meetings, or any occasion where he was conversing with board members of clients.
Early on in my observation of his invocation of this nugget I imagined he was simply using it as a discussion device to impress, to seem intelligent, approachable, considerate, authentic, and maybe even … good? Eventually, however, another pattern appeared; a more subtle situational connection emerged. In fact, my associates favorite time to draw upon this arrow from his conversational quiver was when he was conversing with those in positions of considerable power, and usually when those with whom he was speaking lamented or bemoaned a great yearning and a burning eagerness to use their privileged position (access to money and influence) to positively impact those they were representing, serving. Some people in power desire to give back by using power to serve; despite all the popular rhetoric about power and privilege always being unearned and merely skin deep.
“Being good has become a product of the bottom line of ‘doing good.’”
Even in the 21st Century, with all our digital and commercial distractions, humans seem aware of something that transcends our selves - some way of using power and privilege which can out last our fleeting fragility - to serve our neighbors, to make our/their corner of the world a better place. This observation includes those in control of corporations and capital; as my experiences evidenced time and again. Turns out this is rather a common anxiety and experience amongst those in positions of influence and affluence, and humans in general; after all, only the hardest of hearts can withstand the effect of another piece of popular wisdom, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded[!]”
Sure, some people in power sought a legacy, immortality in the form of a plaque or a bust in some corporate office or community center built with the proceeds of their work. Worse, some modern corporations and executive minds intentionally prioritize and productize commercialization of discord and “teams” affiliation over authentic identity and community as a means to pumping coffers to unprecedented levels of wealth and power. Still, most businesses and leaders I’ve encountered in my work and travels just want to do and be something ‘good’ while also being remembered as ‘do-gooders.’
The desire to be good is most likely, in the final analysis, one reality without which we would cease to be human. Yet, in our era of the business of commerce and consumption, I’ve often observed this core human desire to be good is tragically commingled, interwoven, and even conflated with concepts like brand, association, affiliation, or subsumed under a banner of a comfortable, convenient, or preferred ‘team’ which could be sponsored or “vertically integrated” into one brand by means of using power (capital) to purchase influence and perceived impact or care for community. Being good becomes a product of the bottom line of ‘doing good.’
Year after year, annual planning season upon annual planning season, I would listen to those in positions of power and privilege pound the table for a preferred ‘brand’ of charity, community service, or social justice. Often a literal brand with a popular television or social media commercial was the animating energy behind predictable discussions and commonplace agenda items. I came to expect a common missed connection: Person A wanted to give money (capital) to Organization X; Person B preferred Organization Y, and disapproved of using corporate funds to support the offputting brand, message, beliefs, politics, mission, etc., of Organization X. Most of these professional exchanges end in stalemate. The “teams” factor created tragic realities where, despite the fact the company is ‘doing good’ (well), the good will would have to wait until next year’s budget (or until Person A and Person B find a brand both their teams can support) because Person A from Team Red and Person B from Team Blue couldn’t converse as persons but only as brand allegiants - team fans.
There are certain attributes of our contemporary consciousness which are thoroughly (collectively and individually) saturated in commercial concepts of our economies and industries. Words and concepts like brand, budget, expense, investment, return, and bottom line become the soil (as opposed to the climate) in which conversations about the Good and being good struggle to take root.
“[S]et aside the agenda items about allying the proceeds of our brand with a convenient commercially advantageous charity brand […] and engage in fashioning our own identities.”
This observation that many organizations ‘doing good’ (succeeding at making money) can struggle to be ‘do-gooders’ leads me to an alternate interpretation of my colleagues aggravating idiom which launched this reflection. The price (more capitalism and corporate talk infiltrating social discourse!) of these commonplace conversations in corporations - the ‘teams’ arguments - is loss of individual identities capable of urgently engaging with and impacting communities of humans in real need. Thus, it is also a loss of our own institutional and individual identity in our communities! When we prioritize discourse about what to do with our capital over simply what needs to be done, and how we can be good, our corporate budgets are spared the debit (cost) associated with being do-gooders but our communities are left in a state of deficit and discord. I imagine the same holds true for individuals and, and households. How often do I/we use more than our ‘treasure’ (or lack thereof) to care for others; how frequently do I serve through sacrifice of time and talent, as opposed to simply outsourcing my identity to a brand I choose to sponsor with my cash (donations)? Speaking personally, my household runs at an annual deficit here! I, like most Americans, am part of the problem.
Perhaps the way to equity and opportunity for all in our moment, to ‘doing good’ and ‘being do gooders,’ starts with imagining a discourse not rooted in conversations about whether to devote personal or corporate capital to “Red Team/Blue Team,” or “My Charity Brand/Your Charity Brand.” Rather, we should set aside the agenda items about allying the proceeds of our brand with a convenient commercially advantageous charity brand, and we should instead converse about how we can transcend brand, association, affiliation, and donation (alone) and engage in fashioning our own identities (personal and communal) through engagement with community and distribution of our wealth and privilege directly into people, places, and circumstances in our neighborhoods. Board members should advocate for corporate policies where individuals (employees, execs, board members, customers even!) are compensated for any selfless act of service and action in the community in which the entity they work for or lead is enmeshed. Do both; give money to charity brands, and build capital with individuals in your own work force and immediate world through engagement, service, affordable access to finance, etc.
What sort of good might we do, what types of identities might we cultivate in ourselves, who could we become as people and professional organizations if our interest was not in associating or identifying our capital or brand with another; what could we achieve of language of finance and corporate capital became secondary, if the color of one’s preferred political party once again became a taboo workplace or dinner table discourse, and instead we shared stories of how our identities as individuals were fashioned through our company’s investiture into our actions and service in our community.
We might just find ourselves in a world where my colleague’s favorite saying - ‘you have to do good before you can be a do-gooder’ - is comfortable as a paradox; both outdated/irrelevant and timeless/essential. We might also find ourselves in a world where Red Team and Blue Team ‘leaders’ have to align how they’re spending their (our) money and time to what’s actually happening in our communities. Until then … be good.