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Beauty in Management

Rochester Review 
November 1958

"That low man seeks a little thing to do,
Sees it and does it;
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Dies ere he knows it.
That low man goes on adding one to one,
His hundred's soon hit;
This high man, aiming at a million,
Misses an unit."
--Robert Browning "A Grammarian's Funeral"

The unknowing to the contrary, the life of the businessman in this century is rich in the intellectual challenge imposed by dazzling technological and social change. It is ruthlessly demanding of the courage and integrity needed to face with equanimity sudden crises deeply involving the treasured interests of others and, equally, the slow, remorseless, stubborn trends, like socialism, which threatens the bases of the society in which he believes. The best kind of businessman must have, on the one hand, the resources of the artist whose penetrating perception allows him to master and interpret phenomena he does not fully comprehend; and yet, on the other, he must strive constantly for the facts the scientist wants and use his method with precision. In America he has been entrusted with a great share of responsibility for the State’s good and the people’s happiness, and, therefore, he must understand that a sense of duty arises, not only through the sanction of higher power, but also through the will of individuals.

Statesmen, more than politicians, toil for higher goals while they hold tenaciously to the realization that men are not angels. Businessmen, more than money changers, must work with human beings and, the most rigorous obligation of all, create in them a common will to do worthwhile work, to achieve together aims which add dignity to their lives and pride in the company of their associates.

Every businessman who must make the final decision, who sits, as Harry Truman put it, where “the buck stops,” lives at times in a kind of impenetrable loneliness where judgment and its consequences loom large and awful because they depend so completely on one being. Then the price of power seems high. But more often comes the ecstasy of common aspiration and effort, of the well-joined movement of the group toward valuable objectives through an imaginative creative process which is delicately balanced in a vast variety of characters and forces over which no man has control but which must be studied with insight and acted upon with vigor, else others suffer or gain. So great a swing from solitude to community sometimes brings strain to the most resilient personality.

This is a role that calls for a scholar's willingness to study, analyze, and synthesize, to project bravely, to hypothesize with boldness and wisdom, and then to act from intellectual premises. Those who scoff at the businessman do not understand the good ones and the satisfying richness of their jobs' demands upon them, just as many businessmen, who shrug off the academician, do not appreciate the seminal contribution the true lover of knowledge makes to a free society.

The head of a business works with people, and all other phases of his task pale in significance compared to his need to know human beings, to understand the complexity of their characters and motives, to persuade them of sound judgments, and above all to inspire in them the desire to lift their joint efforts to planes above those which their individual capacities could achieve through that almost miraculous force of leadership which takes some churches, or universities, or states, or enterprises to heights that seem beyond the reach of the men who make them up.

"To manage well, you must be able to teach subordinates; to teach well you must understand the nature and aims of man; and to understand well you must study subjects that have no practical application in business," says Charles Nelson in The Liberal Arts in Management.

Think of that line of Browning's, "This high man, aiming at a million, misses an unit." In ten words it distills an essence of business leadership, and it comes from nineteenth century English poetry, not the curriculum of the Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University.... Arnold Toynbee's figure of the toilers, leaping from ledge to ledge, slowly, steadily climbing from the abyss up the precipice toward civilization, contains all the wisdom the manager needs to know about the process of creativity in his research department. Plato's chained men, searching for truth by observing the flickering shadows of reality on the cave's back wall, illuminate for all time the industrial relations director's problem of communication. He who denies that the humanities are an indispensable, perhaps the indispensable, part of a business manager's training, attests his ignorance of true leadership.

Once, when I was making such an assertion in public, a tough-minded personnel man stumped me with this question, "Why do you management people talk like that, but when you send us out to hire a young fellow for a specific job, you stipulate that he should have a business administration degree, or one in accounting, or physics, or chemistry, or electrical engineering, and never that he be an English or philosophy major?" The answer I could not find that day came after much brooding, and I regret to say it reflects on our foresight to the degree the question is precise. The answer, of course, is that not many of us have the wit to start out to hire the man who will be president two decades hence. The higher the responsibility, the more understanding is required. It is the general manager who most evidently needs to know what Browning meant. He is the one who must take responsibility for articulating human activity into an order as elegant as the abstraction of an algebraic "group" or a painting of Georges Braque. The builders of the Catholic Church were artists as great as Leonardo. The harmony of an organization, smoothly working toward goals of value, is as beautiful as a late Beethoven quartet or Van Gogh's "Starry Night," and unless its leaders understand beauty and the relationship of these three beautiful things, they cannot inspire. This is the heart of the matter. The fact that few businessmen attain such richness and joy of understanding does not detract from the validity of the hypothesis that the best ones do; few artists are Michelangelos.

So much talk of beauty and joy should not obscure the fact that the end of enterprise is profit. It is no good for harmonious, humanitarian, just, creative managements to close their books on a loss. The Sistine Chapel had to be finished; War and Peace was finally written. Greatness is not the stuff of dreams; human effort must be successful to be great in business as in art. It is more likely to succeed in any field if the common denominator, man, is comprehended. The successful manager must truly understand words like these of Vannevar Bush:

"No man has fully lived who has not experienced the fear, the exultation, of meeting great odds and struggling to prevail. But no man has fully lived who has not also experienced the joy of close association with worthy fellows or who has not known the thrill of individual creation. He who can say honestly to himself that he has discovered a set of facts or a relation between phenomena not known to any man before him in all history, and that by his insight and skill he has made them comprehensible to the human intellect--such a man experiences the same uplift of spirit as the one who first climbs a high mountain or first runs a mile in four minutes. And when the accomplishment results not from the lonely acts of individual genius but from the efforts of a team or group having mutual trust and confidence, supplementing one another's skills, compensating for one another's weaknesses, carrying the unfortunate over the rough places, heartening the leader by steadfast support—then all members of the group enjoy a satisfaction transcending that of accomplished creation, a satisfaction of success in their margin of effort to attain something that was beyond the capacity of any individual."

Organized human endeavor can be lifted an order of magnitude through leadership if it is inspiring. The springs of inspiration lie deep in the knowledge of all that is worst and best in men and in the whole-hearted acceptance of that worst and best. To lead well is to know people and to know, above all, that they are always people. The roots of that knowledge are in the sturdy minds and noble souls of the centuries.