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The Aspirations of Business

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What Business Should Be

This week I wish to share a movie clip as a means of communicating the best of what business aspires to be.  Many, particularly on the left, but increasingly on the right, view business as a negative institution.  This is particularly true when it comes to perception of large corporations.  No doubt, much of this is deserved, as business has often unrighteously aligned itself with government to produce profits from rigging the marketplace.

Yet, despite the fallen nature of much business in the world today, too many look upon corporations and business entities as bad per se.  This is erroneous.  There is much to be said for the ideal of an organization dedicated to producing goods and services that make people’s lives better.  I could go on to make this case, but I think that Hollywood has already made a better case than I could.

The Cinematic Case for Corporate America

This case was best made in the climactic scene from the 1954 classic Executive Suite.  This is a typical postwar 1950s film about the travails of life in a modern corporation.  It was one of a spate of such movies, such as the dramatic The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and the comic Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter.  There was dawning on observers of culture that the US economy had not only emerged from WWII as the most dominant in the world, but that the US economy had matured.  Corporations, not mom and pop shops dominated economic life.  Going to work for a large company, and rising as far as you could before getting the gold watch and retiring seemed the prototypical goal.  Of course, reality is never that simple, but that was the ethos of the time. 

These movies came along to examine and, in many cases, critique this ethos.  The harshest critique came from the Rod Serling written Patterns, a much darker cousin to Executive Suite.  This was a typical Serling commentary of what he saw as a greedy, push, push, push world of business.  By contrast Executive Suite comes off as much more sanguine about corporate life and its place in American society.

This sanguinity is one of the chief criticisms of Executive Suite.  It is seen as kowtowing to corporate life and being too agreeable to lose oneself inside of the large organization.  Yet, upon examination I do not think this criticism holds up.  The movie starts off with the death of the strong-willed CEO who, while not the founder of the company (manufacturer of furniture) was its driving force toward growth.  This death sets off a scramble for control of the company within the Board of Directors.  Far from whitewashing corporate behavior, the film shows all manner of skullduggery.  One sleazy board member who learns of the death before his collogues shorts the stock in a patently immoral attempt to profit from this inside information.  The penny-pinching CFO (an accounting clerk really) is hellbent on using whatever means necessary to gain the CEO position.  This includes threatening the VP of sales with his knowledge of the VPs extramarital affair.  There is even blatant attempts to emotionally manipulate the founding family heiress who had an unrequited love with the newly deceased CEO.

Into all this steps the idealistic young manufacturing VP, played by a young himself, William Holden.  He is considered too young to step into the role and initially is seen as only one of the votes needed for others to rise to the top.  In the end he is assisted by the long-term Vice President who realizes that his best role in this company is as a wingman.  He then steers the idealist to make a play for the top job.

This climatic scene is that pitch that he makes for the brass ring.  It may not be how life is really lived in a large, or small for that matter, company, yet it represents what business should be.  It portrays this ideal as something more than just profit yet acknowledges the need for profit.  Rather the argument is made that work is dignified and it should bring a healthy pride and satisfaction that fills the soul, not just the wallet.  There is also a case made for continued innovation and growth, by refusing to be so afraid as to focus only on today’s return and dividend.  In an all too cynical world this aspirational speech stands out as something people would do well to aim at.  Indeed it offers an ethic that values pointing toward the future as an act of faith.

The movie still stands up, in spite of its age.  That is largely due to the outstanding cast, which besides Holden includes Barbara Stanwyck, June Allyson, Frederic March, Walter Pidgeon, and Shelly Winters.  There is even a young Tim Considine (from My Three Sons, and the slapped soldier in Patton) as William Holden’s son.  I pray that you gain some insight into a very important topic, then and now.

Praise Be to God

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