Chapter 5 From Body to Soul: United Airlines to Volkswagen Engines – In Search for the Soul of International Business


From Body to Soul: United Airlines to Volkswagen Engines

“The soul leaves the body” is a common euphemism for death, but what about “when the soul leaves business?” This is increasingly the case, as business managers care more about the bottom line than about decency and curative behavior. As I explore in my article in Qualitative Marketing Research, business must change: the soul must come back home.

Wrestling for the soul of business is nothing new. Each year we are reminded about just how far some companies are falling short. In 2015 Volkswagen cheated emissions regulators. United Airlines recently bloodied a passenger while dragging him from a plane the company had overbooked. Most stunning to me is that not a single United employee— pilot, ground crew, or flight attendant—interceded to say, “This is not right.”

The traditional pillars of business—risk, competition, profit, and ownership—are insufficient for the modern age. Companies focus too much on hedging risks, ousting their competitors, maximizing profits, and expanding assets, and forget the cardinal rule of human decency: reverence for others. Business without soul takes on a sinister character, which charges exorbitant rates for on-flight pillows or hotel minibar snacks. To me, business is meant to create value, for itself and the customer, not leach off others.

There was a time when managers cared about all these things. Years ago, a Japanese firm I was familiar with was dissatisfied with five product failures in a 12,000-item shipment. The company demanded that the supplier conduct an investigation into its production process to prevent future problems. Their supplier was dismissive, offering instead 20 free units as compensation. The company stood firm, demanding a commitment to flawless excellence or their contract would be cancelled. The investigation took place, and the product continues to be superior. Perhaps Profiles in Courage, the 1957 book by John F Kennedy, needs to be reread today.

Furthermore, the old pillars need refurbishing, placing a seat on top to give the customer his rightful priority. The new pillars should be Truthfulness, Simplicity, Expanded Participation, and Personal Responsibility. When problems arise, managers often obfuscate, develop complicated excuses, or disengage by claiming “I didn’t know, I just work here.” Managers must take responsibility for the effects of their businesses, and initiate curative action for past damage and to prevent future harm. Not all conditions can be presented in an employee handbook. My acid test question is: “Does your mother know and approve of what you do?”

How to instill these new pillars in business? One solution is to promote mindfulness in corporate life. It is easy to lose sight of what is important, spending each day laboring in an office far from the impacts of work. Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help overcome this.

Another is to specifically focus on how to bring the soul back into business curriculum. For this, we can look to the tenets of the Jesuits, whose vigorous promotion of honor and service deserves our praise and emulation.

If businesses are to thrive in this era, they must rediscover their soul. We need companies like the old GM—a car company of car people. Passion and commitment to excellence must drive business, not bean-counting. This is the soul of business, and just as the body dies without its soul, so does business.