I recently completed an online course offered by my undergraduate university. It was presented as a miniMBA. It covered a wide range of business related subjects from accounting, to business strategy, to ethics and many others. It was all new information to me. It got me thinking outside of my preconceptions of the business world. In all my formal education, two BA’s, a MA and a PhD, I never had courses in the art and science of business.
While I knew business wasn’t a simple process, I found I was amazed at the complexity involved in a commercial enterprise. From the sourcing of raw material to how a product gets to the consumer, so much human ingenuity and energy is expended just so I can buy my favorite brand of cookie or purchase the latest iteration of an iPhone.
As a psychotherapist I have always been aware of the process of change in individuals’ lives. I don’t think I ever gave much thought to the way business has to constantly manage change to continue to bring products we want or need in our daily lives. I began to understand that, for all the automation and innovation in business, it remains a people-centered process. Technology may drive many changes in business but it is only through humans that those changes are applied and the success or failure of technology is determined.
The courses consisted of modules taught by professors at the Miami University, Farmer School of Business. The faculty was an interesting mix of men and women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. I think the school tried to show through this multicultural curriculum that business is not the domain of any single group of humans but is carried out in a nation and a world that is interconnected now more than it ever has been. I believe it models the balance that is needed in all human enterprises to stay healthy and productive.
This exposure to a diverse faculty and the ever changing challenges of business and its markets, reminded me of the taoist symbol of yin/ yang. The yin/yang symbol represents the opposites of earth and nature, physical and spiritual, light and dark. It represents the dynamic nature of life, the ever-changing forces and desire to achieve harmony even if it is fleeting. It is based on the principles of: duality, paradox, unity, change and harmony.
Yin is often described as receptive energy and is often characterized as: slow, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet and passive. It is associated with water, earth, the moon , femininity and night time. Yang is often characterized as: fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry and active. It is associated with fire, sky, the sun, masculinity and daytime.
The two forces of yin and yang are in constant movement. Yin and yang seek dynamic balance not static balance. Each has in it the seed of the other as represented by the small black circle in the white yang symbol and the small white circle in the black yin symbol. It is meant to symbolize that over time as yang grows, so does the yin within until the yang becomes yin and the yin has transformed into yang. Neither is stronger than the other.
Through my courses, I came to understand that business takes place in a kind of yin/yang cycle, a permanent state of paradox. Business, being a human created process, does this through the creation of markets all the while trying to adjust to the ever changing needs of consumers and the dynamics of the market place. Businesses work very hard to establish stable markets knowing that, at the same time, forces of supply, production and demand are never fully assured. A basic commodity shortage, a new technology, unanticipated consumer needs or something as powerful as a pandemic will disrupt the best of business plans and create chaos in a market until new solutions, a new harmony is found.
In January 2019, who could have foreseen what was to come? The stock market was at all time highs. Unemployment was low. Inflation was low. Demand for energy was strong. It wasn’t a perfect world of commerce but optimism was high. The future looked good for many people, including the sitting president preparing for a second term. Yang energy seemed to have won the day. Then came yin, the force of nature in Covid-19, that demanded to be taken seriously. All the rosiness of a booming economy crashed from the weight of an aggressive, spiky, microscopic virus that indiscriminately took lives and stopped virtually all aspects of normal life.
For many months, the response was all yang. It could be conquered by ignoring it, minimizing it, politicizing it, taking untested drugs, bleach, using strong light inserted somewhere in the body, or simply allowing enough people to die to have “herd immunity”. The problem with all of these were that they ignored the central essence of the virus. It demanded to be taken seriously, to be seen as the killer it was and treated with the respect that masks, hand washing, social distancing and truth required.
I have been amazed at how quickly the scientific and business community has developed a vaccine. It is as great an example as I can think of in recent times of how ingenuity and profit can address a crisis. I have also been amazed at how business in general has adapted and continues to adapt to the market needs of the pandemic. From the production of ventilators, manufacture of personal protective equipment, the growth of food and product delivery services and the rapid expansion of virtual communication tools, the business community has shown remarkable adaptability.
I think this rapid adjustment has come from two sources. The first is in accepting the reality of this pandemic. The vaccine, as I understand it, doesn’t kill the virus, it encapsulates it, it renders it impotent. You might say it gives the virus the respect it demands.
The second is based on businesses needing to make a profit to pay its stockholders for their investment by providing a product or service customers want or need. The pandemic has created an interesting situation where profit and community well being are dramatically intertwined.
In 1970, Milton Friedman, then one of the most influential economists of his time, wrote in the September 13th issue of, “The New York Times Magazine”, an essay titled, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”. In it, he postulated that the only responsibility a corporation had was to make money for its share holders. He wrote that any money spent on social issues was a tax on its share holders. Friedman’s views gained great popularity in the last quarter of the 20th century, especially among conservative political leaders like President Ronald Regan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To the followers of Friedman, a corporation was solely in business to make money. It had no responsibility to a nation or community except to comply with the laws and regulations that governed its business practices.
I would say that Friedman’s model is all yang. It has no softness, no giving, no yielding to the needs of humans other than how to extract money from a given market. It payed little to no attention to the needs of nature or the vulnerabilities of society.
This lack of attention to human vulnerabilities is how the world has found itself in such a dire situation with Covid-19. Scientists, ecologists, ethicists, philosophers, religious leaders, writers and even a few politicians, (very few), have been warning about a world going out of balance in its pursuit to acquire wealth and power at any cost. These warnings went largely unheeded. The world was honoring yang and denying yin. It was setting itself up for a dramatic reversal of energy.
I find it paradoxical that the very engine of unrestrained business that was driving excess yang finds itself working very hard to reestablish some semblance of balance. It is doing so by submitting to the requirements that Covid-19, a force from nature, has imposed on us. This virus has made us reevaluate virtually every personal and social aspect of our lives. It is requiring us to make enough changes in how we live on this planet, how we create markets, how we work, how we relate to one another so that some semblance of balance is restored.
I doubt that the Covid vaccine that is now being distributed around the world will let us return completely to the way things were. I fear that if we try to go back without making significant changes, we will in the future, find ourselves in a similar or worse crisis. A vaccine may pause the virus but it will either mutate or another destructive force will appear to try to wake us up, to tell us to live in better balance in ourselves and with each other.
I am heartened by what I learned in my Miami University business courses. I was taught by an ethnic and gender diverse faculty who shared knowledge from their perspectives. It emphasized sound business principles along with responsibility to ones personal ethics and the health of the community where business is practiced.
This miniMBA taught me that business can embrace duality. It can seek unity within its organizational purpose. It has the ability to embrace change and seek harmony in the market place even if that harmony is tenuous.
Of all the interesting modules in the course, one that best summed up my understanding of business practice and illustrated yin/yang was titled, “Greed is good except when it isn’t”. Now there’s a paradoxical paradox.
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As always, I encourage you to love the ones you are with and the ones you wish you could be with. Life is short even when there isn’t a pandemic. Be safe. Be well.