By: John Caddell
"Business and the Buddha" is a book I expect will be widely ignored. And that's a bad thing, because it is one of the most thought-provoking books I've read in many years. It gets to the heart of many issues that trouble me about the business world, and how our societies have managed the free enterprise system. I suspect many others, were they to read it, would at least feel a mild unease at the base of their stomachs.
The author, Lloyd Field, uses the lessons of Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, to critique and recommend changes to business and free enterprise to increase its humanity and concern for the welfare of the planet and its inhabitants. Its focus is on three groups of guiding principles: wisdom, ethical conduct, and compassion.
Who could argue that we have enough of any of these in the business world?
It's a daunting analysis and prescription, however. Not because it's complex, but because it's so simple: Why do we work in companies that load us down with soulless tasks, enmesh us in petty politics, and treat us as disposable? Why are leaders drawn into ethical gray areas and beyond? Why is it acceptable to threaten and act in bad faith in the world of corporate bankruptcies?
"Business and the Buddha" is brief--180 pages including appendices. And it's an exceptionally well-written book, with sentences that are well-constructed and easy to read and free of errors that I could find.
It's not without flaws. The blanket condemnation of globalization didn't work for me--while it's a mixed bag, in the long run factories opening in a country will do good for a country's citizens, and keeping them out won't do good. I also disagree with his condemnation of competition as wrong behavior. While competition among firms can certainly go overboard and negative, competition is essential to much of the good that free enterprise offers. Better products, environmental breakthroughs, innovations, new ways of looking at the world come about by competition. And lack of competition nurtures bureaucracy and stasis--like the old Soviet Union, an ostensibly fair society that couldn't get a lot of the basics done. (Remember the photos of the empty food stores in the 1970's?)
But these criticisms are minor compared to the overall strength, coherence and simple good sense of the book. Especially from page eighty-five on, I was hooked. Notable quotes:
Too often, the good intentions underpinning corporate values and guiding pricniples are thrown to the wind when unexpected opportunities present themselves or when profitability is in question. (p. 125)
When push comes to shove, a profit-and-loss statement will almost always outrank a values statement. This betrayal...is usually accompanied by a good dose of rationalization, thereby reshaping the company's ethical reality. (p. 130)
"Business and the Buddha" also includes the best illustration of the union-management problem that I've read anywhere:
As long as corporations treat their employees as disposable, unions will have no incentive to seek out alternative value systems. Likewise, as long as unions, in the supposed best interests of their members, cause suffering for corporations, employees have no incentive to seek out other values systems. (p. 139)
Perhaps most challenging, Dr. Field urges companies to adopt a "Cause No Harm" values statement, including in part: "We will not acquire any raw materials, or design, manufacture or sell any products or services, the doing of which will be harmful to beings or to the environment."
It sounds impossible, even crazy, but think about this: so did "Zero Defects" forty years ago. (Sounds like a BHAG, an echo of an earlier, slicker business book.) You can also see the beginning of progress toward this goal, as companies take more accountability for their subcontractors and pledge carbon neutrality.
It's important to note: this is not a religious book. It doesn't preach, urge you to convert, or cite more than the barest bones of the Buddha's story to make its points. The focus is on the ideas, and putting them to use. And like a lot of Christian teaching, with which I'm familiar, the lessons are simple, but following them is hard, hard, hard.
(If you're interested in more business-related ideas inspired by the Buddha, check out "The Art of Happiness at Work" by the Dalai Lama. It's a very pleasurable read, and gives lots of practical advice to those who want their work to be more meaningful and their work lives more contented.)