Who We Are
13.7 Billion Years Ago: Physics
13.7 billion years ago, reality as we know it exploded into existence in the big bang, an event so spectacular that meaning itself seizes to exist before it. It will be many generations until the human species develops the scientific sophistication, or perhaps even the spiritual capacity, to understand why the big bang occurred.
4.6 Billion Years Ago: Chemistry
What we do know is that at the moment of creation, all was the same. The universe was filled with an evenly distributed, high density of energy and hydrogen gas which cooled as it percolated into the the expanding universe. Energy and hydrogen gas cooled into more sophisticated elements with higher electron counts; matter clumped together and began orbiting around larger masses as per the laws of gravity—including our solar system which formed about 4.6 billion years ago. With the surface of a planet providing a relatively stabler stage, elements and compounds, some organic in composition, were sloshing around in a primordial cauldron.
3.5 Billion Years Ago: Biology
3.5 billion years ago—a day just like any other—the rising sun was greeted on Earth by a new kind of chemical superstructure, one that was composed of multiple compounds that were working in concert to achieve self-continuation: life. 2 billion years later multicellular complexity arose, paving the way for a breathtaking kaleidoscope of biological structures to bloom across the planet. All these organisms had one task: to ensure the survival of the precious information stored within their genes that carried instructions on how to create a new copy of itself using commonly found materials.
200,000 Years Ago: Culture
Biological evolution pinnacled with the emergence of homo sapiens a mere 200,000 years ago. If time since the beginning of the universe was represented by the scale of a grand piano, “the whole of human history would occupy a space less than the width of one piano string right at the top of the keyboard”. A large prefrontal cortex enabled humans to replace the glacial pace of biological innovation, which depended on an entire lifetime to pass before change was even possible, with a sophisticated ability to simulation future outcomes. This allowed them to determine the best probability of survival from several options without having to rely on species extinction for correction, and led to an increasing level of prosperity.
This prosperity, along with innovations such as currency—which first arose around Mesopotamia in 3000BC6—permitted specialists who contributed value to human needs beyond survival and security, such as beauty, spirituality and leisure. These early specialists had no way of knowing, besides trial and error, whether their efforts would be well received or not. In fact, some of history's most celebrated specialists—Galileo Galilei and El Greco to name a two—toiled in obscurity during their lifetimes, gaining recognition for their contributions years after their death. One can only imagine how many more specialists were never able to adequately meet market demand, and spent their lives in vain.
235 Years Ago: Business
In 1776, The Wealth of Nations was written by Adam Smith. By criticizing the prevailing mercantilist doctrine, and promoting free trade, specialization of production, and free markets, the book laid the foundation of modern economic theory. Specialization of production was a critical theme of the industrial revolution, and its importance in society has only increased with the complexity of production. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, a visual masterpiece of the Renaissance, took one visionary and a group of assistants three years to complete. Avatar, a blockbuster film and visual masterpiece of the early 21st century, credits over 2,100 people for its creation.
More interestingly, of Avatar's estimated $450 million budget, 33% was devoted to just marketing—including detailed research of how best to present the product to consumers. This is an example of how business, by evolving from the old paradigm of societal specialization to the increased granularity of production specialization, is able to devote time and expertise to activities such as risk mitigation, as opposed to just project completion. Business allows an even more robust simulation of possible outcomes, supplementing the powerful prefrontal cortex with institutionalized best practice techniques passed down through education, and an ever increasing access to the statistical truths underlying our world.
The Unbroken Chain
There Are No Rules
Humankind has made an arduous and incredibly improbable journey to where it stands today. Business is a set of tools to statistically analyze factors and assemble resources to create innovation, and represents the most potent model ever devised by the universe as we know it in the meta-evolution of evolution. From the humblest beginnings of pure energy exploding across the void of nothingness, the physical laws of the universe laid the foundation for chemistry, which provided the building blocks of biological evolution, which led to mankind. We created business. With such a distinguished pedigree, it may seem wise to develop a universal set of ethical rules to govern business, but this would be untenable given the infinite range of human context. Evolution means the successful adaptation to dynamic contexts—about choosing the best solution out of many in a constantly changing environment. There is nobody to guide the ethical business leader, they must guide themselves by investing their entire beings into coming to a conclusion about what they believe the right thing to do is. An ethical business decision is not one which necessarily provides a successful outcome for the species, because such an outcome could occur a millennium after conception.
After all, during the time of the dinosaurs, even the most intelligent of evolutionary theorists would have been unable to fathom how genetically successful mammals would become. Instead, an ethical business decision is one made with the desire to advance the entirety of the human species—a decision made with the realization that each business leader is merely a link on an unbroken chain that stretches as far into the past as time itself, but only as far into the future as the human species does.
Those who refuse to change behavior which causes trauma for humanity are kin to the dodo birds of Mauritius, except that humans have prefrontal choice to change, whereas the dodo only had the random chance of mutation. Such human dodos—warmongers, climate change deniers, cutthroat capitalists—are not only unethical, they are a danger to society. They “are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think its forever,” choosing to take a step on behalf of the rest of humanity towards the cliff of evolutionary extinction. Maintaining self righteousness is more important than cultivating positive genetic mutation for societal DNA for such people.
Any business activity that hinders the ability of the human species to continue itself, directly or indirectly, is unethical. Borrowing from management guru Umair Haque, this includes all businesses that are:
According to Haque, this is the case with almost all mainstream businesses today, and that “the institutions of business as we know them might just have outlived their faded triumphs.” Harnessing these 5 P's makes it easier to try and piece through subtle ethical issues when multiple sides have an argument for the ethical validity of a decision.
The Trifecta of Ethical Business Leadership
A classic example is that put forth by the Roman philosopher Cicero, who describes both sides of a debate about whether an honest grain merchant is expected to reveal to dealers in a famine-struck Rhodes that there are more grain ships arriving a few days later when this information may jeopardize his ability to get standard prices. Cicero leaves the question without conclusion, and he is right to do so given that this debate is more a matter of opinion than ethics. Provided a business is not actively trying to undermine the future of humanity in search of present day profits, then it is an ethical business, and it still has the potential to end up benefitting humanity. Both options—to tell the Rhodians or not—could be ethical decisions so long as the merchant:
- Realizes that his existence is unimportant, because he is merely a link on the chain of innovation for his descendants
- Realizes that his existence is crucial, because at the moment he represents the cutting edge of universal innovation
- Uses these paradoxical truths as the foundation from which the merchant will invest his entire being, a complicated machine crafted over eons, towards making the decision
Leaders of Tomorrow
If future business leaders are to make decisions based on this trifecta—two truths and a fully vested being—then business schools must develop a laser focus towards cultivating this thought process in their students. The Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), developed by a coalition of global academic leaders, are six principles to holistically prepare MBAs for the crucial role of business leader. The first principle reads: “We will develop the capabilities of students to be future generators of sustainable value for businesses and society at large and to work for an inclusive and sustainable global economy,” and effectively summarizes both the spirit of the PRME and the trifecta. “Sustainable value” instead of simple profits recognizes our role as links in the chain, while “society at large” highlights how critical the business leader is to the development of the entire planet.
The Cosmos, Trifecta and You.
The business leaders of today are the vanguards of innovation in the known universe.
They have the power and reach to affect millions, to bring positive social impact to scale, and to invest in cutting edge technology. Business has come a long way since the days of Adam Smith, and it is important to recognize that. Banking, transportation, utilities, mass production, higher standards of living—these are a handful of stars in the galaxy of triumphs business has achieved to date. But business must now build upon the successes of the past, must stand on the shoulders of giants to assume its role as the curator of societal DNA. Since the big bang we have been interconnected to everything; we are made of the same stuff as, and so are relatives of, the pandas in the National Zoo, and the cardboard sleeve one puts around a hot cup of coffee. We have a responsibility to compassionately curate the reality of which we are a part.
This is not about spirituality—although many eastern philosophies have held the same view for millenniums—this is about science, and humanity. This is about being humbled by our infinitesimal imprint on time and space, and empowered by the profound amount of time and information it takes to evolve a human being from scratch. This is about realizing how special you are, and how much power you have especially when augmented with the tools of business. Do what you think is right.