Enterprise at its best—decoupled from self-interest?

Julia Middleton has written an interesting piece for the Institute of Directors.  She argues that we need to decouple ‘enterprise’ from ‘self interest’.

Julia contrasts the motivations of the bankers  – ‘primarily financial‘ with the interests of Narayana Murthy, Chair of Indian IT giants Infosys – primarily about a ‘wider social gain‘.

Julia suggests that ‘Bankers’ are primarily motivated by self interest, while Murthy was motivated by a wider social need that ‘transcended’ personal gain.

“Many people wondered why I wanted to take such a risk, to create, at that time in India, a company that would set a new standard of ethics in business. I had a good job, I was married, I had a small child, and I was brought up middle class. It was no easy decision. But all of us are driven by factors that transcend the hygiene factors: money and position. We all want to do something noble and make a difference to the context.”

Julia argues that this view of enterprise is “glorious and grand and is delivered the world over by people motivated not only by personal gain but also by the needs of their communities and countries. It is enterprise at its best—enterprise decoupled from self-interest.”

But Murthy was acting EXACTLY in his own self interest.  He was driven by factors that ‘transcended the hygiene factors’.  He was driven to do something ‘noble’.  He believes that everyone else is as well.  Presumably even bankers?

In my book, both enterprise and entrepreneurship are all about ‘self interest’ and ‘power’.  About taking decisions and actions that work for a self interest that has been properly understood and negotiated.  Not simply in terms of profit, but in terms of sustainability, and wider societal impact.  Some bankers seem to have managed this ‘proper negotiation  of self interest’ more effectively than others.  As indeed have some IT companies.

Perhaps Julia is arguing that good enterprise is ‘selfless’ rather than ‘selfish’?

I would argue that both of these are equally dangerous foundations on which to build an enterprise.  The middle ground of self interest, where my hopes and aspirations (to get rich, to save the whale, to reverse climate change, to do something noble) are properly and sustainably negotiated with the interests of others provides the only strong foundation for a sustainable, progressive and effective relationship.

I cannot be always giving (selfless) nor can I be always taking (selfish).

The point is not that we should decouple enterprise from self interest – but that we should work with people to ensure that their self interest is both rightly understood and properly negotiated with both the present and the future.  That personal perceptions of self interest remain dynamic and relevant (witness Bill Gates journey from techy to philanthropist – all the time pursuing his self interest).

Instead of urging people to put self interest to one side we should be urging them to put it ‘up front and centre stage’.  We should then help them to explore how their self interest ‘works’ with the self interests of others.  To understand how self interest is served by helping others.  How association, co-operation and mutuality work in pursuit of individual and collective self interests.

Because it is the mutual negotiation of self interests, and access to the power to pursue interests effectively, that provide the basic building blocks of civic society.

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